U.S. troops battled insurgents fortified in houses and driving explosives-laden vehicles in a second town near the Syrian border, killing 28 in an expansion of their two-day-old offensive chasing al-Qaida fighters along the Euphrates River valley, the military said.
Al-Qaida in Iraq claimed Sunday to have taken two Marines captive during the fighting and threatened to kill them within 24 hours unless all female Sunni detainees are released from U.S. and Iraqi prisons in the country. The U.S. military said the claim appeared false.
"There are no indications that the al-Qaida claims ... are true," Multinational Force West, the command in the region said. It said it was conducting checks "to verify that all Marines are accounted for."
Even as the fighting continued, political differences among Iraqi leaders deepened ahead of the crucial Oct. 15 national vote on a new constitution. Iraq's Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, called on the Shiite prime minister to step down over accusations he is monopolizing power in the government and ignoring his Kurdish coalition partners' demands, a spokesman for Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan said.
The U.S. military says al-Qaida in Iraq, the country's most fearsome insurgent group, has turned the area near the border into a "sanctuary" and a way-station for foreign fighters entering from Syria.
In Karabilah, Marines clashed with insurgents who opened fire from a building on Sunday in a firefight that killed eight militants, the military said.
The move into Karabilah widened the sweep launched a day earlier by 1,000 Marines, soldiers and sailors, starting with nearby Sadah a tiny village about eight miles from the Syrian border.
Most of the militants appeared to have slipped out of Sadah before the force moved in, and hundreds of the village's residents fled into Syria ahead of the assault.
There was "virtually no opposition" in Sadah, the Marine commander in western Anbar province, Col. Stephen W. Davis, told The Associated Press.