The increased military activity coincided with the approach of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when the pace of attacks increased last year.
Also Tuesday, the military resumed airstrikes in nearby Fallujah striking twice at the rebel-held town long known to be the hideout of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s terrorist network. The first raid targeted the popular al Haj Hussein restaurant in central Fallujah, as well as adjacent shops and homes. The restaurant was closed, but two night guards were killed. The restaurant, which was completely destroyed in the strike, was described as the meeting place for Zarqawi’s radical Tawhid and Jihad War group.
“Terrorists frequently planned operations from this location … the location had been under the terrorist organization’s control for more than a year and innocent civilians knowingly stayed away,” the military said in a statement.
A second strike on Fallujah is said to have flattened a building northeast of the city, which the military said was a known terrorist safehouse. Zarqawi associates were in the safehouse at the time of the raid, intelligence sources reported.
The Jordanian-born Zarqawi is responsible for numerous bombings, kidnappings and beheadings, according to Iraqi and U.S. officials.
On Tuesday in Ramadi, following two days of clashes, Iraqi forces backed by U.S. Marines raided seven mosques suspected of harboring terrorists, storing weapons, promoting violence and encouraging insurgent recruitment, the U.S. command said.
The military took pains to explain that the raids are in response to a pattern of insurgent activity in and around Ramadi mosques in recent weeks. They detailed recent attacks involving mosques, such as one Monday when insurgents engaged in a three-hour fight with small arms, machine guns and mortars from the Sharqi Mosque in the city of Hit near Ramadi. On Oct. 8, rebels reportedly took refuge in a mosque after an attack on the Red Crescent Society building.
The 1st Marine Division “respects the religious and cultural significance represented by mosques,” it said in a statement. “However, when insurgents violate the sanctity of the mosque by using the structure for military purposes, the site loses its protective status.”
U.S. military officials stressed that American forces were only used to back up Iraqis and did not enter the mosques during the raids, said Maj. Francis Piccoli, a Marine spokesman.
Angry residents were unreceptive to the explanations, according to wire service reports from the scene. “This cowboy behavior cannot be accepted,” said cleric Abdullah Abu Omar after the maneuver at the Ramadi Mosque.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and White House officials have said they plan to use a mix of diplomacy and military force to try to wrest control of dozens of key cities from insurgents before planned January elections.