U.S. begins major combat effort in Iraq
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The U.S. military launched a major combat operation Friday as 1,000 Marines and Iraqi soldiers fanned out to track down insurgents and foreign fighters in a volatile western province straddling Syria.
Operation Spear began before dawn in Anbar province, the military said. The operation began a day after Air Force Brig. Gen. Don Alston called the Syrian border the "worst problem" in terms of stemming the influx of foreign fighters into Iraq. Syria is under intense pressure from Washington and Baghdad to tighten control of its porous 380-mile border with Iraq.
The military also said two U.S. Marines were killed by a roadside bomb Thursday during combat operations near Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad.
The deaths raised to 13 the number of Marines killed in and around the volatile Anbar province in separate attacks during the past week. Two sailors also have died.
At least 1,716 members of the U.S. military have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Also Friday, a suicide car bomber slammed into a loaded fuel tanker as it drove through Baghdad's eastern suburbs, killing two people and injuring another six, police said. The car hit the tanker after it missed an Iraqi army patrol in the Kamaliyah suburb.
A second suicide car bomber targeting a senior police commander killed two civilians and wounded 11 others, including seven civilians and four traffic officers in Fallujah, police officer Samir Ali said.
Maj. Gen. Mahdi Sabih, police brigade commander for the Interior Ministry's new public order unit, escaped unharmed. Sabih, also Fallujah's mayor, had just attended a ceremony and was leaving when the attacker rammed a sedan into the crowd, Ali said.
Fallujah is a town in Anbar province 40 miles west of Baghdad.
The U.S. military said a child was killed during an "escalation of force" incident between a vehicle and an Army foot patrol in western Baghdad at about 9 p.m. Thursday. Iraqi police Sgt. Najim Abdullah the victim was a 10-year-old boy.
"We are aggressively investigating this unfortunate incident," said Sgt. 1st Class David Abrams, a spokesman for Task Force Baghdad. He could not confirm if there was an exchange of gunfire.
Elsewhere, a suicide car bomber rammed an Iraqi army convoy in northern Iraq, injuring at least seven people -- three soldiers, three civilians and a policeman, police Brig. Gen. Sarhat Qadir said. The blast came on the heels of a suicide car bomb on Baghdad's airport road Thursday that killed eight police officers and wounded 25.
On June 11, the Marines engaged the insurgents after the militants took control of a road just outside Karabilah near the Iraqi-Syrian frontier city of Qaim, about 200 miles west of Baghdad.
During that battle, insurgents killed 21 people, beheading three of them. Those bodies, found June 10, were believed to belong to a group of missing Iraqi soldiers.
During the airstrikes, Marine aircraft fired seven precision-guided missiles at insurgents armed with AK-47 assault rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. No U.S. troops or civilians were injured.
There have been nearly 1,100 violent deaths linked to the insurgency since the Shiite-led government took office seven weeks ago. Jordanian-born terrorist leader Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi's hope to provoke sectarian war suffered a setback Thursday when the Shiite-led parliament and leaders of the disaffected Sunni Arab minority, which is thought to provide the backbone of the insurgency, agreed on a process for drafting Iraq's constitution.
On Thursday, Alston blamed the recent spike in bloodshed on al-Zarqawi, who purportedly condoned the killing of fellow Muslims and denounced the Shiites as collaborators with the Americans.
Al-Zarqawi's hope to provoke a sectarian war suffered a setback Thursday when the Shiite-led parliament and leaders of the disaffected Sunni Arab minority, which is believed to provide the backbone of the insurgency, agreed on a process for drafting Iraq's constitution.
Alston's focus on al-Zarqawi, whose small group is blamed for many of the bloodiest attacks and hostage-takings in Iraq, apparently was aimed at reinforcing growing dissatisfaction among Iraqis over insurgents targeting civilians. He said that anger has brought an increase in calls to tip lines.
He said tips to Iraqi authorities resulted in Tuesday's arrest of Mohammed Khalaf, also known as Abu Talha, who was al-Qaida's leader in Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad.
Separately, U.S. Staff Sgt. Alberto B. Martinez, of Troy, N.Y., was charged with murder Wednesday in the deaths last week of two Army officers at a base north of Baghdad, the military said Thursday.
The military initially attributed the June 7 killings of the officers -- Capt. Phillip T. Esposito and 1st Lt. Louis E. Allen -- to an insurgent mortar attack near Tikrit but said further investigation showed the blast pattern was inconsistent with such an attack.
Martinez, 37, a supply specialist with the 42nd Infantry Division, a New York-based National Guard unit, is facing two counts of premeditated murder, according to a military statement.
He was being held at a military jail in Kuwait and has been assigned a military attorney and has the option of hiring a civilian lawyer, the statement said.
Elsewhere, dozens of hooded insurgents surrounded a downtown mosque in Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, to prevent a meeting Thursday of local politicians and tribal leaders on the country's new charter and reconciliation efforts.