HAQLANIYAH, Iraq, AP -The U.S. military launched a major offensive early Tuesday in a cluster of cities in the Euphrates River valley, an operation aimed at insurgents using the area as a safe haven in a region where 20 Marines were killed in August.
It was the second U.S. offensive launched against al-Qaida in Iraq militants in the western Anbar region in four days.
Air strikes by U.S. warplanes and dozens of helicopters set off explosions that lit the city skylines of Haqlaniyah, Parwana and Haditha before dawn Tuesday. Bridges across the Euphrates River between Haqlanaiyah and Haditha were bombed to prevent insurgents from using them.
About 2,500 U.S. Marines, soldiers and sailors, and hundreds of Iraqi troops, took part in the operation, codenamed River Gate, the largest U.S. offensive in Anbar this year, the military said. More Iraqi soldiers appeared to be participaing in the operation than any other offensive conducted in the region.
The military reported some U.S. casualties but wouldn”t give details. No information was immediately available on insurgent casualties.
"The operation”s goal is to deny Al-Qaida in Iraq the ability to operate in the three Euphrates River valley cities and to free local citizens from the insurgents” campaign of murder and intimidation of innocent women, children and men," the U.S. military said in a statement.
On Saturday, about 1,000 service members launched a separate U.S. offensive, Operation Iron Fist, farther to the west in the Euphrates River valley near the Syrian border in the village of Sadah and two nearby towns, Rumana and Karabila.
Iron Fist, which continued Tuesday, was aimed at al-Qaida in Iraq insurgents who receive reinforcements and supplies from Syria. At least 57 insurgents have been killed, with no serious casualties among U.S. forces, the military said. Soldiers with air support were conducting house-to-house searches for militants.
Operation River Gate was taking place in Haqlaniyah, Parwana and Haditha, three cities that have no Iraqi police or troops based in them, leaving their streets open to roving insurgent groups.
The cities, with a combined population of about 100,000, are located 90 miles east of the Iron Fist offensive and 175 miles northwest of Baghdad.
Earlier this year, Haqlaniyah, Parwana and Haditha were all searched individually by hundreds of U.S. forces, but Tuesday”s offensive was substantially larger than any previous operations by U.S. forces in that entire region of western Iraq in 2005.
On Aug. 1, an ambush by insurgents in Haditha killed six U.S. Marine snipers, and a large roadside bomb on the outskirts of the city on Aug. 3 killed 14 Marines and an Iraqi interpreter.
Last spring, Haditha General Hospital, the region”s largest, was heavily damaged by a suicide car bomb that set fire to the building, and insurgents used staff and patients as human shields during the fighting with Marines that followed, the military said.
In addition, the U.S. military has said that Iraq”s most wanted terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of Al-Qaida in Iraq, once had a home in Haditha.
Marines commanders in the River Gate offensive said it was designed to uproot insurgents who were taking advantage of the lack of Iraqi police and soldiers in the three cities.
Al-Qaida in Iraq and other groups in the Sunni-led insurgency have launched a wave of violence across the country in an effort to wreck the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum.
On Monday, the United Nations announced in New York that it is distributing millions of copies of Iraq”s draft constitution in this country ahead of the referendum. But residents in Baghdad and several other provinces told The Associated Press on Tuesday that they have not received the document or seen it being handed out in their areas.
Meanwhile, Sunni Arab leaders continued to criticize the Shiite-dominated parliament for passing a new ruling last weekend that could make it much more difficult for the Sunni minority to defeat the draft constitution that they oppose.
The parliament decision on Sunday was the latest instance of the Shiite-dominated government making a favorable interpretation of rules on the constitution.
Those rules state that the constitution is defeated if two-thirds of voters in any three of Iraq”s 18 provinces reject it, even if an overall majority across the country approve.
Iraq”s Sunni Arab minority has been counting on those rules to defeat the charter at the polls. There are four provinces where Sunni Arabs could conceivably make the two-thirds majority "no" vote. But instead, parliament, which has only 16 Sunni members, approved an interpretation stating that two-thirds of registered voters — rather than two-thirds of all those who cast ballots — must reject the constitution for the rules to apply.
The change effectively raises the bar to reach the two-thirds mark.
"This will make it impossible for residents of the Iraq”s few mostly Sunni provinces to bring down the constitution," Saleh al-Mutlaq, a leading Sunni politician, told The Associated Press. "The aim of this move is to pass the constitution and to impose it on everybody regardless of their opinions."
Sunni Arab leaders fear the constitution will fragment Iraq, allowing Shiites in the south and Kurds in the north to form mini-states.
At least 212 people, including 17 U.S. forces, have been killed in the last nine days in Iraq during attacks and fighting involving insurgents.
The latest victims include Iraqi police Maj. Sahib Zaman, who was shot and killed during an attack by suspected insurgents on his home Kirkuk late Monday, and three civilians who died in fighting between insurgents and Iraqi police in Baghdad that night, authorities said.
A U.S. soldier also died of gunshot wounds suffered in western Iraq, the military announced Tuesday. The 56th Brigade Combat Team soldier was shot on Monday morning near Taqaddum, a town close to the city of Fallujah and about 40 miles west of Baghdad.
The attack raised to at least 1,937 the number of U.S. military members who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to a count by The Associated Press.