Civilians flee besieged western town where US forces

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Civilians flee besieged western town where US forces battling al-Qaida, insurgents

By ROBERT H. REID - Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD, Iraq - (AP) Scores of terrified Iraqis fled a besieged
town Sunday, waving white flags and hauling their belongings to escape a
second day of fighting between U.S. Marines and al-Qaida-led militants along
the Syrian border. U.S. and Iraqi troops battled insurgents house-to-house,
the U.S. military said.
The U.S. commander of the joint force, Col. Stephen W. Davis, told
The Associated Press late Sunday that his troops had moved "about halfway"
through Husaybah, a market town along the Euphrates River about 320
kilometers (200 miles) northwest of Baghdad.
At least 36 insurgents have been killed since the assault began
Saturday and about 200 men of fighting age have been detained, Davis said.
He did not give a breakdown of nationalities of the detainees. Many were
expected to be from a pro-insurgent Iraqi tribe.
Davis would not comment on U.S. and Iraqi government casualties but
said the militants were putting up a tough fight because "this area is near
and dear to the the insurgents, particularly the foreign fighters."
"This has been the first stop for foreign fighters, and this is
strategic ground for them," he said by telephone.
Earlier Sunday, Brig. Gen. Donald Alston, a U.S. military spokesman,
told reporters in Baghdad that none of the 3,500 U.S. and Iraqi troops had
been killed so far.
In a statement Sunday, the U.S. Marines said American jets struck at
least 10 targets around the town Sunday and that the U.S.-Iraqi force was
"clearing the city, house by house," taking fire from insurgents holed up in
homes, mosques and schools.
Residents of the area said by satellite phone that sounds of
explosions diminished somewhat Sunday, although bursts of automatic weapons
fire could be heard throughout the day. The residents said coalition forces
warned people by loudspeakers to leave on foot because troops would fire on
"I left everything behind _ my car, my house," said Ahmed Mukhlef,
35, a teacher who fled Husaybah early Sunday with his wife and two children
while carrying a white bed sheet tied to a stick. "I don't care if my house
is bombed or looted, as long as I have my kids and wife safe with me."
Marines said about 450 people had taken refuge in a vacant housing
area in Husaybah under the control of Iraqi forces. Others were believed to
have fled to relatives in nearby towns and villages in the predominantly
Sunni Arab area of Anbar province.
U.S. officials have described Husaybah, which used to have a
population of about 30,000, as a stronghold of al-Qaida in Iraq, led by
Jordanian extremist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Husaybah had long been identified
as an entry point for foreign fighters, weapons and ammunition entering from
Syria. From Husaybah the fighters head down the Euphrates valley to Baghdad
and other cities.
Several people identified as key al-Qaida in Iraq officials have
been killed in recent airstrikes in the Husaybah area, the U.S. military has
said. Most were described as "facilitators" who helped smuggle would-be
suicide bombers from Syria.
Syria has denied helping militants sneak into Iraq, and witnesses
said Syrian border guards had stepped up surveillance on their side of the
border since the assault on Husaybah began.
The Americans hope the Husaybah operation will help restore enough
security in the area so the Sunni Arab population can take part in Dec. 15
national parliamentary elections. If the Sunnis win a significant number of
seats in the new parliament, the Americans hope that will persuade more
members of the minority to lay down their arms and join the political
process, enabling U.S. and other international troops to begin withdrawing
next year.
"The insurgents are throwing everything they have at the Iraqi
people and coalition forces in an effort to derail Iraq's democratic
reforms," Alston said.
He said the offensive is aimed at interrupting the supply lines that
al-Qaida in Iraq uses to launch some of the deadliest suicide attacks
hitting Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.
However, a protracted battle in Husaybah with civilian casualties
risks a backlash in the Sunni Arab community, which provides most of the
In Baghdad, Mohsen Abdul-Hamid, head of the largest Sunni Arab
political party, sharply criticized "all military operations directed
against civilian targets" because they "lead to the killing of innocent
people and the destruction of towns and cities."
Saleh al-Mutlaq, head of another Sunni faction and a member of the
committee that drafted the new constitution, accused the Americans and their
Iraqi allies of mounting "a destructive and killing operation of secure
cities and villages" on the "pretext that they hide and secure terrorists."
The U.S.-led assault, codenamed "Operation Steel Curtain," includes
about 1,000 Iraqi soldiers and will serve as a major test of the fledgling
army's capability to battle insurgents _ seen as essential to enabling
Washington to draw down its 157,000-strong military presence.
Elsewhere, U.S. Army snipers killed eight insurgents Sunday in
separate incidents in Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, the U.S. command
said. One of the insurgents was shot dead when he was found planting a
roadside bomb, the U.S. statement said.
Three others were killed when they drove to the site of the first
shooting and began firing "sporadically in all directions," the statement
added. The other four were killed after trying to plant roadside bombs in
other parts of the city, the statement said.
In Baghdad, two people were killed and nine wounded when a car bomb
exploded near a tunnel, police Capt. Qassim Hussein said. Gunmen firing from
two speeding cars also fired on civilians near a bus stop in the capital,
killing a policeman and wounding five other people, police said.