QAIM, Iraq – Iraqi fighters toting machine guns and grenade launchers swept through the rubble-strewn streets of this town on the Syrian border Friday, setting up checkpoints and preparing to do battle despite a major U.S. offensive aimed at rooting out followers of Iraq’s most-wanted militant.
The remote desert region is a haven for foreign combatants who slip across the border along ancient smuggling routes and collect weapons to use in some of Iraq’s deadliest attacks, according to the U.S. military. But the fighters who remain in this Sunni town some 200 miles west of Baghdad insist there are no foreigners among them.
“We are all Iraqis,” said one gunman, his face covered with a scarf. He said the fighters were trying to prevent U.S. forces from entering the town.
The six-day-old U.S. offensive in the area – one of the largest since insurgents were forced from Fallujah six months ago – was launched in Qaim and is aimed at supporters of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
U.S. military spokesman Capt. Jeffrey Pool said Marines have not conducted operations inside Qaim since the opening days of the campaign, known as Operation Matador, which began overnight Saturday and led to the killing of six suspected insurgents and capture of 54 in the town.
Instead, according to Pool, rival bands of insurgents are now fighting among themselves, trading mortar, gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire almost nightly.
The U.S. offensive comes amid a surge of militant attacks that have killed at least 430 people across Iraq since April 28, when the country’s first democratically elected government was announced. At least nine more Iraqis were killed and 19 wounded in a series of bombings, ambushes and other attacks Friday.
In other developments Friday:
“ An American soldier was killed and four others wounded when a car bomb exploded in Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad, the military said in a statement.
“The new interim prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, extended Iraq’s state of emergency for another 30 days Friday, effective from May 3.
“Iraqi security forces, with help from the Shiite Muslim Badr Brigades militia, captured an Iraqi and four Palestinians who allegedly carried out a deadly Baghdad market bombing Thursday that killed at least 17 people.