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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Forces Comb Iraq for Foreign Terrorists

HADITHA, Iraq -- About 1,000 U.S. Marines, sailors and soldiers encircled this Euphrates River city in the troubled Anbar province before dawn on Wednesday, launching the second major anti-insurgent operation in this vast western region in less than a month.

The offensives are aimed at uprooting insurgents who have killed more than 620 people since a new Iraqi government was announced on April 28. Many of those insurgents are thought to be foreign fighters who have slipped across the border from Syria.

Syria is under intense pressure to stop foreign fighters from entering Iraq across their porous 600-kilometer-long border. Both the United States and Iraq, at their highest leadership levels, have been demanding Syria do more. Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said last week that he would soon visit Syria for talks with officials about repeated border infiltration.

"We believe there are many infiltrators, many terrorists, that are stepping through the borders carrying out terrorist attacks against innocent Iraqis," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiar Zebari said at a joint news conference with visiting Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini.

Earlier this month, U.S. forces conducted a weeklong operation in the city of Qaim and other Iraqi towns near the Syrian border aimed at rooting out militants allied to Jordanian-born terrorist mastermind al-Zarqawi and destroying their smuggling routes into Syria. At least 125 militants were killed in that operation, along with nine U.S. Marines, the military said.

A web statement in the name of al-Zarqawi's group, al-Qaida in Iraq, said the terrorist mastermind has been wounded. But U.S. officials cautioned they did not know if the posting was authentic and privately said the information also may have been designed to purposely mislead.

Al-Zarqawi has denounced Iraqi Shiites as U.S. collaborators and said killing them, including women and children, was justified.

Four U.S. soldiers were killed on Tuesday, pushing the number of U.S. troops killed in four days to 14, part of a surge in attacks that have also killed about 60 Iraqis.

Sunni and Shiite clerics and politicians have been intensifying efforts to find a way out of a sectarian crisis that threatens a civil war. Sunnis opposed to the new government are thought to make up the insurgency's core, and some Sunni extremists have been attacking Shiites.

About 3,000 Iraqi Shiite Muslim protesters staged a noisy demonstration Wednesday in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, to denounce recent comments made by a prominent Sunni leader who accused a Shiite militia of killing Sunni clerics.

In Haditha, helicopters swept down near palm tree groves, dropping off Marines who blocked off one side of the town, while other troops on foot and in armored vehicles established checkpoints and moved toward the center of this city, 225 kilometers northwest of Baghdad. U.S. warplanes circled above.

"Right now there's a larger threat than should be in Haditha, and we're here to tell them that they're not welcome," said Lieutenant Colonel Lionel Urquhart, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, which is part of the operation.

The assault, called Operation New Market, focused on this city of about 90,000 people, where the U.S. military says insurgents have been using increasingly sophisticated tactics. Earlier this month insurgents launched a multistage attack from a Haditha hospital, killing four U.S. troops in an ambush that included a suicide car bomber, a roadside bomb, and gunfire from fortified positions in the hospital, which was partially destroyed in the attack.

According to initial reports, three insurgents were killed during several fierce gun battles that broke out after U.S. forces entered this town before dawn, Marine Captain Christopher Toland told an Associated Press reporter embedded with U.S. forces. Two Marines were also wounded and evacuated, Toland said.

U.S. Marines took over several homes in Haditha, using them as observation and control centers as other troops fanned out through the city's mainly empty streets in an apparent bid to flush any insurgents out. At least one loud explosion rocked the city early this morning, but the source of the blast was unclear.

The latest campaign demonstrates the military's ongoing concerns about insurgents in both small and large cities in Sunni-dominated areas of the country where large U.S. operations are still necessary to clear populated areas.

Haditha has no functioning police force, and U.S. military officials acknowledge that their presence has been light in the city but say Iraqi troops are expected to arrive soon.

"A lot of this is like bird hunting. You rustle it up and see what comes up," said Marine Colonel Stephen Davis, commander of the operation made of troops in Marine Regimental Combat Team 2.

A small reconnaissance unit of Iraqi soldiers is participating in the attack, Urquhart added.