About 1,000 U.S. troops, backed by attack helicopters and warplanes, swept into a village near the Syrian border Saturday in a new offensive aimed at rooting out al-Qaida militants and stemming violence that has shaken Iraq ahead of a crucial vote on a new constitution.
U.S. aircraft firing missiles struck houses and cars, sending palls of smoke into the sky as the force moved into Sadah, residents contacted by The Associated Press said. In the evening, Marines clashed in the streets with insurgents, and a Humvee was seen burning, they said.
The U.S. military said al-Qaida in Iraq, the country's most fearsome militant group behind a wave of suicide bombings, had taken control of Sadah and that foreign fighters were using it as a way station as they enter from Syria to join the insurgency.
The assault was the fourth large U.S. offensive in the border area since May. But the militants who run rampant in large parts of western Iraq have proven difficult to put down, moving back in to towns after the assaults are over and the bulk of troops withdraw.
Al-Qaida and other Sunni-led insurgents have waged a stepped-up campaign of violence, killing at least 205 people this week in an attempt to wreck the Oct. 15 referendum on the constitution, a vital step in Iraq's political process. Iraq's Sunni Arab minority opposes the draft charter, fearing it will split Iraq and consecrate Shiite and Kurdish domination.
Al-Qaida in Iraq has declared "all-out war" on Shiites, and since a Shiite-majority government took power in Iraq on April 28, suicide bombers have killed at least 1,345 people, according to an Associated Press count.
Two US soldiers were killed by explosions while on patrols Saturday _ one in Baghdad and another in Beiji, 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of the capital, the military said. Fifteen U.S. service members have been killed this week _ and at least 1,935 have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003.
In Baghdad, insurgents kidnapped the brother of Interior Minister Bayan Jabr Solagh, the Shiite official who heads police forces, and the son of another top ministry official was kidnapped north of the capital, ministry spokesman Maj. Felah al-Mohammedawi said.
Meanwhile, the alliance at the center of Iraq's government was showing strains, with Kurdish leaders accusing Shiite parties who dominate the Cabinet of monopolizing power and ignoring past promises _ particularly to start resettlement of Kurds in the northern city of Kirkuk.
Kurds warned they would consider withdrawing from the government, causing it to collapse, if their demands weren't met _ a step that would deepen political turmoil ahead of the referendum.
U.S. troops sealed off Sadah, and U.S. and Iraqi officials released no immediately information on casualties on the first day of the assault.
Troops went house to house, blasting open doors in a hunt for insurgents, but so far no weapons caches or significant militant figures had been found, a correspondent for CNN embedded with the troops said. Helicopters fired on three vehicles as the force moved in, two of which turned out to be carrying suicide bombers and the third was being loaded with weapons, CNN reported.
Sadah is an isolated village of about 2,000 people on the banks of the Euphrates River, with one main road and about 200 houses scattered in a rural area about 12 kilometers (8 miles) from the Syrian border, near the town of Qaim in Iraq's western province of Anbar.
The offensive, named Operation Iron Fist, was launched by a force of Marines, soldiers and sailors, aiming to root out al-Qaida militants who have turned Sadah into a "terrorist sanctuary" and stop infiltration by foreign fighters, the military said in a statement.
Marines carried out two major operations around Qaim in May, killing 125 insurgents in the first campaign, Operation Matador, and about 50 in the second, Operation Spear in mid-June in the town of Karabilah. Nine Marines were killed in those actions.
In September, thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops fought through the city of Tal Afar, farther northwest along the border in Nineveh province, killing over 150 insurgents and captured over 300, according to Iraqi military figures.
Two weeks after that offensive, a woman suicide bomber infiltrated the city and set off a blast that killed six Iraqi army recruits on Wednesday _ illustrating the difficulty of completely suppressing down militants.
The Tal Afar assault included a large force of Iraqi troops alongside the Americans, but like the previous operations around Qaim, Iron Fist appeared to include only a minimal Iraqi presence _ the U.S. military did not mention any at all, and police in Qaim said only a few Iraqis were participating.
Building Iraqi forces in Anbar province, the heartland of the insurgency, has been slow, and U.S. troops are spread thinly, concentrating around towns closer to Baghdad and relying on such massive offensives into the more far-flung border regions to knock insurgents there off balance.
In other violence Saturday, a roadside bomb hit a patrol by Danish troops as they passed over a bridge in the southern city of Basra, killing one Dane and wounded at least two others. It was the first Danish fatality from hostile fire in Iraq since Denmark deployed troops to Iraq two years ago.
The U.S. military released about 500 Iraqi detainees from the notorious Abu Ghraib prison out the outskirts of Baghdad on Saturday, the second and final part of a release of 1,000 this week in honor of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The move appeared to be part of U.S. and Iraqi efforts to persuade Iraq's Sunni minority to vote in the upcoming referendum.
Many Sunni Arabs oppose the constitution, saying it would give Kurds living in the north and majority Shiites in the south too much independence and control over Iraq's oil wealth, and leave Sunnis isolated in the central and western Iraq, AP reported.