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U.S. jets drop 500 lb bombs in Iraq operation

Reuters | June 17, 2005
By Luke Baker

U.S. F-16 fighter planes dropped a series of 500 lb (220 kg) bombs on insurgent targets in western Iraq overnight as the U.S. military launched a heavy offensive against rebels near the Syrian border.

Nine of the powerful bombs were dropped, the U.S. military said, two of them targeting suspected rebel safe houses near the town of Qaim, an insurgent stronghold on the Euphrates river about 20 km (12 miles) east of Iraq's border with Syria.

Four more were aimed at rebels as they fired mortars and assault rifles at U.S. ground forces near Qaim, and a further three were used to hit suspected weapons caches in the area.

The air power was in support of Operation Spear, the third major offensive U.S. forces have launched in western Iraq in the past six weeks with the aim of crushing insurgent activity in the Euphrates valley which stretches northwest to Syria.

"Operation Spear ... began in the early morning hours with the objectives of rooting out insurgents and foreign fighters and disrupting insurgent support systems in and around Karabila," Captain Jeffrey Pool of the U.S. Marines said in a statement from Ramadi, capital of the surrounding Anbar region.

Iraqi troops and U.S. tank and amphibious assault units were involved, he added. About 1,000 troops were taking part in all.

Residents in Karabila, a suburb of Qaim where the suspected weapons caches were targeted, said fierce gunbattles broke out overnight and continued. U.S. forces said air strikes killed about 40 rebels near there on June 11.

The leader in Qaim of the Muslim Clerics Association, a leading voice for the once-dominant Sunni Arab minority, said he was calling for businesses to remain closed and residents to stay in their homes after weekly Friday prayers in protest at U.S. action he said was endangering civilians.

"The U.S. forces are escalating the situation and we will declare a general strike after Friday prayers," the Association's Mudhafar al-Ani said.

The chief doctor at Qaim hospital, Hamdi al-Alusi, said six bodies had been brought to the morgue on Friday, including one of a woman. The identities of the five men were unclear. Alusi said he believed they had been killed in bombing.

It was unclear how much resistance U.S. forces were meeting, but a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter made an "unscheduled landing" near Qusayba, 20 km (12 miles) west of Qaim, the military said. Pool said it was not shot down.

The western, desert regions of Iraq provide strongholds for Sunni insurgents battling the U.S. occupying forces and the new, Shi'ite-led government. Iraqi and U.S. officials say Arab foreign fighters have been entering from Syria, although Damascus rejects accusations of helping them do that.

CAR BOMBS

In Baghdad, a suicide car bomber blew up his vehicle as an Iraqi security patrol was passing in front of a Shi'ite mosque in the east of the city, wounding four people and causing a fuel truck to explode, police said, sending clouds of thick smoke into the air.

There have been a series of attacks on Shi'ite and some Sunni mosques since a January election that brought a new Shi'ite-led government to power, but Friday's blast was believed to have targeted the army patrol, not the mosque.

Tensions have been running high between the minority Sunni Arab community, from where the insurgency draws much of its support, and the dominant Shi'ite sect since the government was formed in late April.

Despite those tensions, Sunni Arab and Shi'ite leaders managed to strike a compromise on Thursday over the makeup of a committee charged with drafting a new constitution, the next major step in Iraq's hoped-for transition to democracy.

Sunni Arabs were originally given just two seats on the 55-member committee -- a reflection of their low turnout in the election, which left them with just 17 seats in the 275-member parliament -- but will now be given 15 more seats.

The agreement, which will be finalized only once the often divided Sunnis have agreed among themselves on the names they want to put forward, removes a stumbling block that has hindered progress on the constitution for the past two months.

A draft of the charter is due by mid-August and must be put to a referendum by mid-October. If it is approved in that vote, then new parliamentary elections will be held in mid-December under the new constitution.

There have been concerns that the drafting of the constitution could be delayed, but Iraq's parliamentary speaker dismissed them during a visit to Tokyo on Friday.

"I think it's very important for us to stick to the timeline. I don't think it's very difficult to do that," Hajem al-Hassani said when asked if there might be a delay.

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