AL QAIM, Iraq – U.S. Marines rolling though towns on the upper Euphrates River said Tuesday that they found dead insurgent fighters in bulletproof armor and wearing foreign clothes. In the towns, they reported finding caches of weapons and suicide-bomb vests, as well as car bombs rigged to explode.
Commanders said they believe the finds are strong indications that foreign fighters make up part of the resistance facing them as they conduct a large offensive aimed at rooting out insurgents near the Iraqi-Syrian border.
“I’ve always been skeptical of the amount of foreign fighters said to be out here,” said Col. Stephen Davis, commander of Regimental Combat Team-2, responsible for this corner of Anbar province. “That skepticism is removed as of this operation.”
Davis said his assessment was based on the examination of dead insurgents as well as the interrogations of captured fighters. Some, he said, wore white clothes favored by Yemeni or Saudi men, contrasted with the colorful garb favored by local Iraqis. One dead man wore a beard trimmed in a manner common to Saudi Arabia, compared to the Saddam Hussein-style mustaches seen among Iraqis.
During interrogations, many prisoners speak with foreign accents or use foreign phrases, said an interpreter who asked not to be identified. And some prisoners “just flat out admit” that they were from other countries, Davis said, without identifying the countries.
According to the Marines, the fighters also are employing different tactics – they are better equipped and better trained than the Iraqis the Marines have fought since arriving in Anbar province in February. “We mostly deal with Iraqis,” Davis said. “These are different.”
Since the fighting began Sunday, Marines backed by armored vehicles have moved north of the Euphrates, where the U.S. military believes a group of insurgents numbering in the hundreds has taken refuge. The remote area is home to many Sunni Muslims opposed to the Shiite-dominated government that took office late last month, touching off a bloody round of suicide bombings and other insurgent attacks that have killed more than 300 people.
American intelligence also has suggested that insurgents have used the region as a haven, often floating across the Syrian border.
Early reports say the fighting, door to door in some towns, is the toughest since the fight for Fallujah in November. Though U.S. military commanders have said their goal is to turn over responsibility for the entire country to the fledgling Iraqi army, the current offensive involves only American personnel.
“Those (Iraqi) operational forces have simply not extended their reach far enough west to join the U.S. forces there,” Marine Lt. Gen. James Conway, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon. “If the fight continues, if it does involve fighting in built-up areas, that’s not to say you won’t see Iraqi forces involved.”
In an audacious move, some of the region’s insurgents kidnapped the provincial governor Tuesday, telling his family he would be released when U.S. forces withdrew. Gov. Raja Nawaf Farhan al-Mahalawi was seized as he drove from Al Qaim to the provincial capital of Ramadi, his brother told the Associated Press.
Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, said the military would not respond to the demands.
Three Marines died in the first 48 hours of the offensive along the Euphrates, the U.S. announced. Though the military in Baghdad also has estimated that up to 100 insurgents have been killed, reliable reports from the region are somewhat lower.
Rules for reporters embedded with American units require reports about those killed to be delayed for 72 hours, so that families can be notified. Blackhawk helicopters used for evacuating casualties have flown steadily since the operation began Sunday.
Though Marines met only light resistance Tuesday, the fighting may intensify in the next few days, commanders warned. Marine units have moved methodically through places where the insurgents could hide, searching house to house. An area dense with houses on the north bank of the Euphrates is now directly ahead of advancing Marine armor columns.
The Marines also are approaching a thoroughfare blocked by rows of sandbags and other obstacles, said Lt. Col. Chris Starling, who flew over the area Tuesday evening on a reconnaissance mission.
Other aerial observers south of the Euphrates reported seeing a stream of people fleeing the town of Karabilah on the river’s south bank, Davis said. The groups were traveling south through a dry riverbed. Many were reportedly holding white flags.
Karabilah is near a bridge over the Euphrates where American units have been attacked in sporadic but intense gunbattles in recent days.
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