HADITHA, Iraq – American troops walked down city streets in neat lines, whispering instructions to each other. Except for dogs baying in the pre-dawn darkness, the city was quiet – until a large explosion shook the neighborhood.
Marines crouched with guns pointed, while others ran for cover, their ears still ringing from the explosion. One group ran through a front yard, rushing by a porch swing and a grove of trees. Sounds of battle and gunfire broke out around Haditha.
On Wednesday, more than 1,000 U.S. troops swept into this western Iraqi city on the road to Syria to root out insurgents – including those loyal to terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – after rebels damaged the hospital, knocked out the electricity and prevented police from entering.
The American troops killed at least 10 suspected militants in the Euphrates River city of 90,000 people – one of whom told the Marines that insurgents had recently killed her husband.
Speaking inside her home through a military interpreter, the woman moved her finger across her throat as she begged that her name not be used, indicating she could be killed for talking to U.S. forces. She later helped cook a breakfast of eggs and bread for the handful of Iraqi soldiers helping guard the street.
“People have always been nice to us. But you can tell the (insurgents) have been doing some damage because people are real scared,” said Marine Capt. Christopher Toland, of Austin, Texas, a platoon commander in the 3rd Battalion, 25th Regiment.
Marine Col. Stephen Davis, commander of the Haditha operation, told CNN that al-Zarqawi “clearly is an influence out here. There are clearly links to him and to his elements out here in western Iraq.”
Wednesday’s offensive, the second on a road to Damascus in less than a month, came as the Iraqi government demanded that Syria block insurgents from crossing the border. Iraq also asked the U.N. Security Council to renew its mandate for the 160,000 troops in the U.S.-led multinational force, saying it cannot fully defend itself alone.
The offensives are aimed at uprooting insurgents who have killed more than 620 people since a new Iraqi government was announced April 28.
Just before dawn, U.S. Marines, sailors and soldiers encircled this city 140 miles northwest of Baghdad in troubled Anbar province.
Helicopters swept down near palm tree groves to drop off Marines who blocked off one side of Haditha, while other troops on foot and in armored vehicles established checkpoints and moved toward the city center. U.S. warplanes circled overhead.
The Marines said six insurgents were killed in central Haditha – including one man identified as a cleric who allegedly was firing an automatic weapon. Four others were killed in separate incidents, the Marines said in a statement.
“Local citizens identified one of the attackers killed as an imam. The imam was firing on Marines and Iraqi Security Forces with an AK-47 assault rifle,” the statement said.
The first glimmer of dawn saw troops walking unimpeded, until a white sedan with four men appeared. The Marines quickly surrounded it and the men got out, including one with a blood-soaked shirt who said he was shot after walking out of his home.
A medic, HM1 John Jenkins of Bellefontaine, Ohio, of the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, quickly treated him as Marines tested the hands of the others for gunfire residue. The three were positive, but the wounded man could not be tested as his hands were caked in his blood.
“I need the interpreter!” Jenkins yelled. “I’m going to put this needle in his chest and I don’t want him to hit me!”
A small Iraqi reconnaissance unit took part in the attack, said Lt. Col. Lionel Urquhart, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment.
Iraq’s inability to fight the insurgency on its own was reflected in a letter that its foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, submitted to the United Nations.
“Despite continuing efforts to build up our security forces, these forces cannot as yet assume full responsibility for maintaining our national security and defending our borders,” he wrote in the letter circulated in New York on Wednesday.
Haditha is a prime example. It has no functioning police force, and U.S. military officials acknowledge the American presence has been light.
Wednesday’s assault, called Operation New Market, focused on this city where the U.S. military says insurgents have been using increasingly sophisticated tactics.
Earlier this month, militants launched a well-coordinated attack from a Haditha hospital, killing four U.S. troops in an ambush that included a suicide car bomber, a roadside bomb and gunfire. The hospital was partially destroyed.
On May 7, American forces launched a weeklong operation in the city of Qaim and other Iraqi towns near the Syrian border. The goal was to root out militants allied to al-Zarqawi and to destroy their smuggling routes into Syria. At least 125 militants and nine U.S. Marines were killed in that operation, the military said.
Syria is under intense pressure from the United States and the Iraqi government to stop foreign fighters entering Iraq across its porous, nearly 400-mile border.
Separately, Iraqi security forces killed Sabhan Ahmad Ramadan, a senior al-Zarqawi aide in northern Iraq, the government said. The announcement came a day after a Web statement in the name of al-Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq group said its leader had been wounded. U.S. officials cautioned they did not know if the posting was authentic.