BAGHDAD (Reuters) â€” Around 1,000 US and Iraqi troops swept through the western town of Haditha on Wednesday, searching homes and seizing suspects in an anti-insurgent raid that follows a surge in militant attacks.
The US military said Marines, sailors and Iraqi soldiers were all involved in the operation, dubbed New Market, which saw troops descend on the Euphrates River town northwest of Baghdad before dawn, backed by US helicopters.
The operation is the second major offensive in the area this month as US forces try to staunch the insurgency in western Iraq, where militants such as Abu Mussab Zarqawi are believed to be hiding.
In a posting on an Islamist website, Al Qaeda in Iraq â€” Zarqawi’s group that is allied to Al Qaeda â€” said its fighters had clashed with US troops in Haditha.
It said its militants “fought glorious battles with crusaders and their agents,” referring to US and Iraqi forces.
The operation came a day after another Islamist website carried a posting saying Zarqawi, America’s most-wanted man in Iraq with a $25 million bounty on his head, had been wounded in fighting, although it did not say where, when or how.
Reports in recent weeks have said US forces were closing in on Zarqawi, having captured his driver, an aide and his laptop computer in a February raid.
“Insurgent presence and activity has recently increased in the area,” the US military said in a statement on Wednesday’s operation, adding that a suicide car bomb attack on Haditha’s Hospital in early May had been a trigger for US action.
Insurgent attacks have soared nationwide over the past month, since the formation of a Shiite-led government, with more than 600 Iraqis and dozens of US troops killed. Violence between Iraq’s main Muslim sects has also increased.
Haditha, a town of about 100,000 people lying 200km northwest of Baghdad in the Euphrates Valley, sits on a major supply route between Syria and the rebel stronghold of Ramadi and has long been suspected of being a militant haven.
Haditha residents said US troops began their operation at around 5:00am (0100 GMT), moving door-to-door through the largely deserted streets as helicopters hovered overhead.
“They came to my house, there were about 15 of them, and they searched everything, looking for weapons and asking if I knew any insurgents,” said Maher Dali, dean of the college of arts at the province’s Anbar University.
“After they’d finished searching, they left, that was it.”
A doctor at Haditha Hospital, Waleed Hadithi, said he had received two dead and one wounded since the operation began.
Residents said troops seized several suspected insurgents, but there was no word on arrests from the US military. Most townspeople were staying inside, residents said, too scared to venture into the deserted streets.
There was fresh violence in Baghdad, which has been hit by a string of car bombings in the past three days. A suicide car bomber detonated near a police patrol in the Dora district, killing two people and wounding 11.
In the northern Iraqi town of Sharqat, the police chief was killed by gunmen who ambushed his car, police said, the latest in a long line of senior officials to have been assassinated.
And in Ramadi, southeast of Haditha, clashes between US troops and insurgents left three people dead and seven wounded, according to Munem Aftan, a doctor in the local hospital.
On Tuesday, insurgents killed four US soldiers and two Iraqis in attacks in the capital, a day after a wave of suicide bombing and ambushes that killed at least 56 Iraqis and five American troops countrywide.
This month, 60 US troops have been killed, making May the deadliest month for the US military since January. Since the war began in March 2003, 1,255 US troops have been killed in action in Iraq, while more than 12,000 have been wounded.
There has also been a marked increase in sectarian killings in recent weeks as divisions between Iraq’s majority Shiite and minority Sunni Arab communities worsen.
A series of tit-for-tat killings since Shiites emerged as victors in the country’s first post-Saddam Hussein elections, held in January has led some analysts to fear that the country could descend into civil war if a peace is not brokered.