BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Insurgents attacked several U.S. bases and government offices with mortars and rockets Thursday before dispersing in the capital of western Iraq”s Anbar province, residents and police said.
Iraq”s interior minister on Thursday also fired his top official for human rights in connection with a torture investigation.
The attacks in Ramadi occurred as local tribal leaders and U.S. military officials were to hold their second meeting in a week at the governor”s office in the city center. The insurgents apparently tried to shell the building, but reporters inside said there was no damage or injuries.
Police Lt. Mohammed Al-Obaidi said at least four mortar rounds fell near the U.S. base on the eastern edge of the city, but that there were no reports of casualties.
Residents said that within minutes, scores of masked gunmen, believed to be members of Jordan-born militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi”s al-Qaeda in Iraq group, ran into the city”s streets but dispersed after launching attacks with mortars and Russian-made Katyusha rockets.
It wasn”t clear if the attacks left any casualties but most residents fled to their homes after the exchange began.
Ramadi is the provincial capital of Anbar province, a Sunni stronghold, where clashes between insurgents and U.S. and Iraqi troops have left hundreds of people dead in the past two years.
U.S. and Iraqi troops launched a joint operation near Ramadi on Wednesday, sweeping through an area used to rig car bombs.
About 500 Iraqi troops joined 2,000 U.S. Marines, soldiers and sailors in a move to clear insurgents from an area on the eastern side of the Euphrates river near Hit, 85 miles west of Baghdad, the U.S. command said in a statement.
The offensive came as President Bush said he hopes to shift more of the military burden onto the Iraqis as part of a strategy to draw down American forces.
In a statement, the military said the Hai Al Becker region "is suspected to be an al-Qaida in Iraq safe area and base of operations for the manufacture of vehicle car bombs, roadside bombs." It described the area as a transit point for foreign fighters and Iraqi insurgents infiltrating from Syria into Iraq.
There were no reports of casualties during the first day of the operation, part of a series of sweeps through Sunni Arab towns along the Euphrates believed to be major insurgent strongholds.
Residents reached by telephone said U.S. forces warned townspeople by loudspeakers to stay in their homes for the next three days.
Interior Minister Bayan Jabr sacked Nouri al-Nouri, the ministry”s chief inspector for corruption cases and human rights violations, on the order of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, an official said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
Al-Nouri, a Shiite Muslim, had been in the post since the hand over of sovereignty to Iraqi in June 2004.
Al-Jaafari, a Shiite, ordered a probe into the alleged mistreatment of up to 173 detainees after U.S. forces entered a ministry of interior lock up on Nov. 13 and found at least some of those being held showed signs of torture.
Two U.S. service members died of wounds suffered in combat and a Marine died in a non-hostile traffic accident, the U.S. military said Thursday. That raised the U.S. death toll for November to at least 84.
The victims included a Task Force Baghdad soldier who died of gunshot wounds received Wednesday and a Marine who died of wounds suffered the same day in Fallujah, the U.S. command said. The traffic accident involving a Marine from the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing occurred near Camp Taqaddum, 70 kilometers (45 miles) west of Baghdad, another military statement said.
The names of the troops were withheld pending notification of kin.
The November death toll was below the October figure of 96,the fourth deadliest month for U.S. forces since the U.S.-led invasion began in March 2003. But it was more than the 49 killed in September or the 54 in July. Eighty-five U.S. troops died in August.
Also Wednesday, a group of influential Sunni clerics called for the release of five Westerners taken hostage last week, saying they should be granted their freedom as a humanitarian gesture.
The Association of Muslim Scholars, believed to have contacts with some Sunni insurgent groups, has helped mediate the release of other Western captives in Iraq.
The five include four aid workers from the group Christian Peacemaker Teams, Tom Fox, 54, of Clearbrook, Va.; Norman Kember, 74, of London; and James Loney, 41, and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, both of Canada, and German archaeologist Susanne Osthoff, 43.
On Tuesday, Al-Jazeera broadcast video of the four men held by a previously unknown group calling itself the Swords of Righteousness Brigade. The group claimed they were spies working under the cover of Christian peace activists.
The Sunni association said releasing Osthoff would recognize Germany”s "positive" stand toward Iraq. Germany strongly opposed the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Kidnappers have threatened to kill Osthoff and her driver, who were kidnapped Friday, unless Germany halts all contacts with the Iraqi government.