KARABILAH, Iraq AP -Helicopter gunships and fighter jets streaked across the desert sky Saturday as American and Iraqi forces battled insurgents near the Syrian border, killing at least 50 militants in two massive offensives to stanch the flow of foreign fighters from Iraq”s western neighbor.
The U.S. military reported the deaths of two American soldiers, killed north of Baghdad during an attack as they were taking a captive to jail.
Intelligence officials believe Iraq”s western Anbar province is the main entry point used by extremist groups, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi”s al-Qaida in Iraq, to smuggle in foreign fighters. Syria is under intense pressure from Washington and Baghdad to tighten control of its porous 380-mile border with Iraq.
On Thursday, a U.S. general called Syria”s border the "worst problem" in terms of stemming the flow of foreign fighters.
The next day, about 1,000 U.S. and Iraqi forces backed by battle tanks launched Operation Spear in the desert wastes around Karabilah and Qaim. The offensive entered its second day Saturday in Karabilah, a dusty, blistering hot town about 200 miles west of Baghdad, is considered an insurgent hub.
About 50 insurgents have been killed since the operation began, Marine Capt. Jeffrey Pool said from Ramadi, the provincial capital. Three U.S. troops have been wounded and about 100 insurgents have been captured, the military said.
Dozens of buildings in Karabilah were destroyed after airstrikes and shelling, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene.
"The goal is not to seize territory," said Marine Col. Stephen Davis, of New Rochelle, N.Y. "This is about going in and finding the insurgents."
Karabilah”s streets were empty, and the military said about 100 people fled the town. At one home, a family gathered on their porch, hanging a white flag from the roof to signal U.S. jets not to bomb their home.
Troops searching the town found four Iraqi hostages beaten, handcuffed and chained to a wall in a bunker, Davis said.
Some of the men were believed to be Iraqi border guards. Troops searching the bunker found nooses, electrical wire and a bathtub filled with water for electric shocks and mock drownings, Davis said.
Later, Marines and Iraqi soldiers took fire outside a mosque and a small band of insurgents fled inside, Pool said. Three militants were killed.
The U.S. military also reported incidents of insurgents breaking into homes and using families as human shields, resulting in injuries to 10 civilians.
U.S. and Iraqi forces also found a bomb-making factory in the town, Pool said. It contained blasting caps, cell phones and other materials to make roadside and car bombs, he said. Troops also found sniper rifles, ammunition and a mortar system.
A nearby schoolhouse believed to be used for training terrorists had instructions for making roadside bombs written on a chalkboard, Davis said.
A second offensive of similar size, Operation Dagger, was launched Saturday, targeting the marshy shores of a lake north of Baghdad. About 1,000 Marines and Iraqi troops, backed by fighter jets and tanks, took part.
Operation Dagger seeks insurgent training camps and weapons caches in the Lake Tharthar area, 53 miles northwest of Baghdad.
On March 23, U.S. and Iraqi forces killed about 85 militants at a suspected training camp along Lake Tharthar and discovered booby-trapped cars, suicide-bomber vests, weapons and training documents.
The insurgents captured then included Iraqis, Filipinos, Algerians, Moroccans, Afghans and Arabs from neighboring countries, officials said.
The western region has been flush with militant fighters in recent weeks. Marines carried out June 11 airstrikes that killed about 40 of them after a nearly five-hour gunfight on the outskirts of Karabilah.
Insurgents in the area also killed 21 people believed to be missing Iraqi soldiers. The bodies, including three that were beheaded, were found June 10.
Marines carried out two major operations near Qaim last month, killing 125 insurgents in Operation Matador and 14 in Operation New Market. Eleven Marines were killed in those actions, which targeted insurgents using the road from Damascus, Syria, to Baghdad.
Iraqi troops did not participate in the earlier offensives. This time, they fought alongside the Americans and used their language skills and local knowledge to spot foreign fighters, said Col. Bob Chase, chief of operations for the Second Marine Division.
Separately, the U.S. military said Saturday that two soldiers were killed and one was wounded after fighting with insurgents late Friday while transporting a detainee near Buhriz, about 35 miles north of Baghdad. A civilian and the detainee also were killed, and five Iraqi police officers were wounded.
At least 1,718 members of the U.S. military have died since the Iraq war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
In other violence, a suicide car bomber struck an Iraqi military checkpoint in Tikrit on Sunday, killing two soldiers and one civilian, officials said. Thirteen others were wounded.
Separately, gunmen killed two Iraqi police officers in western Baghdad as they headed to work Sunday morning, an official said. The policemen were on their way to Diyala Bridge police station in the capital when the shooting occurred, Iraqi army Capt. Usama Adnan said.
A second band of gunmen killed an electrical engineer who was on his way to work at the Dora oil refinery in southern Baghdad Sunday, said Dr. Muhanden Jawad of the capital”s Al-Yarmouk hospital.
On Saturday, insurgents also killed at least four people in Baghdad, including two Iraqi soldiers and a 10-year-old girl, hospital and police officials said. Twenty-one people — including an Iraqi journalist — were wounded in the suicide bombings and shootings.
The girl was killed and two people were wounded when a roadside bomb missed a passing American military convoy, said Dr. Muhand Jawad of Baghdad”s Al-Yarmouk hospital.
A suicide car bomber slammed into an Iraqi army convoy in the Yarmouk neighborhood, killing two soldiers and wounding six near dangerous road leading from downtown to the airport, police Lt. Thaer Mahmoud said.
Also, a farmer found seven corpses in a field in eastern Baghdad, police said. The men, wearing civilian clothes, were shot in the back of the head and had their hands bound.
The body of a Sunni tribal leader also was found Saturday outside Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of Baghdad. Sheikh Arkan Shaalan Jassim al-Edwan, who had been shot, was sprawled on a fallen roadside portrait of Saddam Hussein, police Lt. Adnan Abdullah said.
More than 1,100 people have been killed since Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari”s Shiite-led government was announced April 28.