BAGHDAD (Reuters) â€” US forces mounted their biggest offensive in a year against Sunni Arab insurgents in western Iraq on Saturday, saying they would make the lawless area on the Syrian border safe for voters in next month’s elections.
An assassination attempt in Baghdad on a Sunni leader whose group accused the Americans and the Shiite-led government of killing civilians in such operations added to sectarian tensions that are driving the campaign for the December 15 ballot, in which Sunnis are expected to vote in large numbers for the first time.
“The government is unable to control the situation,” fellow Sunni politician Hussein Falluji said after Fakhri Qaisi was hit by five bullets as he drove alone in the capital.
Qaisi had said he feared for his life from Shiite “death squads,” as well as Sunni insurgents opposed to his role in the US-backed political process, he was in a critical condition.
Some 2,500 US troops and 1,000 local Iraqis met “sporadic” resistance, a US Marines statement said, when they advanced through the streets of Qusayba on the Syrian border at the start of Operation Steel Curtain against foreign Al Qaeda fighters.
It was the biggest operation in the mainly Sunni desert province of Anbar since weeks of fighting forced insurgents from the city of Fallujah, close to Baghdad, in November last year.
“The force is moving through the city to restore security along the border and destroy Al Qaeda in Iraq terrorist network operating throughout the region,” the Marines said.
“Qusayba is one of the main centres for transiting foreign fighters, equipment and money into Iraq.” Several US offensives this year in the Euphrates valley, running from the border towards the capital, have been aimed at stemming the flow of Islamist militants into Iraq, although local people have complained that Al Qaeda-linked militants have returned to their towns once the Americans have withdrawn.
US commanders hope local troops can now hold their own as part of strategy to begin withdrawing US forces next year.
After unconfirmed reports from local people of dozens of casualties in Qusayba and nearby Qaim, the military said in a statement that air strikes had hit only buildings from where rebels had opened fire. Troops had found six bombs on Saturday.
About 400 local people were being given shelter by the troops, the statement said. Local people said by telephone that much of Qusayba’s 30,000 population had already fled the town.
Residents said Iraqi troops were spearheading the offensive, backed by US troops in the dusty, low-lying towns.
US officials in Iraq have been keen to halt the alienation of Saddam Hussein’s fellow minority Sunni Arabs. There have been indications that some nationalist insurgents are turning against their foreign-inspired Islamist allies, like Al Qaeda in Iraq under the leadership of Abu Mussab Zarqawi.
US statements take pains to label the enemy as Al Qaeda.
However, while Sunni Arab politicians who have taken a hard line against US occupation offer little defence for militants who targeted Shiite civilians, they have been angered by military offensives against insurgents in the north and west.
The National Dialogue Council, part of a major Sunni bloc contesting the election after boycotting a first post-Saddam vote in January, said the latest military campaign in Anbar would “shed the blood of more innocent people.”
Television footage showed houses wrecked in earlier fighting, burnt-out cars and walls riddled with bullet holes.
“The Americans destroyed Qaim. Our houses are destroyed, our children are getting killed. What are we supposed to do now?” one unidentified resident told a local reporter.
The National Dialogue also demanded Defence Minister Saadoun Dulaimi, one of the few Sunnis in government, be fired and tried for war crimes for threatening to destroy homes where rebels found refuge. But Dulaimi was defiant.
“Houses that are a refuge for terror have no privacy,” the minister said. “Without hesitation I say we will go and bring down their houses on the heads of their inhabitants.” Hours later, National Dialogue spokesman Qaisi was shot. He was among the Sunni politicians who negotiated on a constitution in August before disowning the final charter as a divisive product of the Shiite- and Kurdish-dominated parliament.
Sunni parties, having narrowly failed to veto the document in last month’s referendum, are now trying to mobilise voters to increase their bargaining power in the new assembly. Under a deal brokered by US diplomats on the eve of that vote, the new parliament will start by trying to renegotiate the constitution.
In an Internet statement, Al Qaeda said it attacked a police checkpoint on Friday and killed at least six officers.
In the same area, where sectarian violence has been severe, gunmen killed 13 people on Saturday when they shot up a minibus at Balad Ruz. The victims’ identities were not clear.
Insurgents continued to strike at US forces, killing three.