The military effort, said to involve at least 1,000 American troops, opened Sunday near the Euphrates River and quickly came into contact with scores of militants.
“The offensive is aimed at eliminating terrorists and foreign fighters from the area,” U.S. Central Command said in a statement released Monday. “The operation is currently on the area north of the Euphrates River, in the Al Jazirah Desert. The region is a known smuggling route and sanctuary for foreign fighters.”
A Chicago Tribune reporter, embedded with soldiers taking part in the assault, reported the military planned the operation to interrupt to movement of insurgents from neighboring Syria.
“Our analysis is that there’s a foreign fighter flow from Syria,” Col. Stephen Davis, commander of Marine Regimental Combat Team 2, told the Chicago Tribune’s James Janega.
“The trademark of these folks is to be where we’re not,” Davis said. “We haven’t got north of the river for a while.”
As the forces moved over the river, they engaged insurgents in intense firefights. The U.S. military reported at least 75 insurgents killed within 24 hours.
The military assault follows two bloody weeks of rebel attacks aimed at undercutting the newly formed Iraqi government.
Guerrillas have unleashed a bloody wave of car bombings and suicide attacks since the bulk of the new government was announced on April 28. At least 310 people, many of them Iraqi police and security officials, have died in the attacks.
Despite the campaign by American forces in the restive Al Anbar province, the violence continued on Monday when a suicide car bomb exploded at a police checkpoint in southern Baghdad, killing at least three people and wounding eight, police said. A separate car bomb targeting Iraqi soldiers detonated near the Ministry of Transport, wounding four people, according to Reuters.
Monday’s bombings followed a weekend that saw eight American service members killed in attacks throughout the country. On Sunday, three soldiers were killed in two roadside bombings and one was killed by small-arms fire west of the capital.
Some of the worst fighting unfolded in the insurgent stronghold of Haditha, where guerillas seized a civilian and used gunfire, RPGs, a suicide car bomb and a roadside bomb to kill three U.S. Marines and a sailor, the military said.
The Iraqi government, still reeling from the insurgent attacks, claimed some success over the weekend, saying on Sunday its security forces had captured an associate of the country’s most-wanted militant, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Identified as Ammar Adnan Mohammed Hamza al-Zubaydi, he is accused of planning an April 2 assault outside Abu Ghraib prison, the Iraqi statement said.
But in his first public statement as Iraq’s new Defense Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi said the road ahead would be difficult.
“Iraq became the crossroads for international terrorism. For that reason the government and the people of Iraq will suffer more than other countries,” Reuters quoted him as saying.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari continued to struggle to finalize a new government.
On Sunday al-Jaafari announced that the National Assembly had approved six new cabinet ministers, including four Sunnis. But before al-Jaafari could celebrate the final selections, news came that one candidate, Hashim al-Shibli, had rejected the post of human rights minister.
“I heard about it watching TV,” Shibli told The New York Times in an interview. “No one talked to me or asked me about it before. This morning they called me and tried to congratulate me on my ‘new job,’ but I said no. I refused this because this is sectarianism, and I don’t believe in sectarianism. I believe in democracy.”
The remaining five ministers took their oath of office on Monday and the Iraqi government hopes to fill the human rights position in the coming days.