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Militants make stand on border

Marines cite strife among the insurgents

QAIM, Iraq -- Iraqi fighters toting machine guns and grenade launchers swaggered through the rubble-strewn streets of this town on the Syrian border yesterday, preparing to do battle despite a major US offensive aimed at rooting out followers of Iraq's most-wanted militant.

The remote desert region is a haven for foreign combatants who slip across the border along ancient smuggling routes and collect weapons to use in some of Iraq's deadliest attacks, according to the US military. But the fighters who remain in this Sunni town 200 miles west of Baghdad insist there are no foreigners among them.

''We are all Iraqis," one gunman, his face covered with a scarf, said. He said the fighters were trying to prevent US forces from entering the town.

The six-day-old US offensive in the area -- one of the largest since insurgents were forced from Fallujah six months ago -- was launched in Qaim a week ago and is aimed at supporters of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

A US military spokesman, Captain Jeffrey Pool, said Marines have not conducted operations inside Qaim since the opening days of the campaign, known as Operation Matador, which led to the killing of six suspected insurgents and capture of 54 in the town.

Instead, according to Pool, rival bands of insurgents are now fighting each other, trading fire almost nightly with mortars, guns, and rocket-propelled grenades.

Residents acknowledge internal fighting in Qaim began even before the US offensive, and characterized it as tribal clashes. The cause of the clashes was not immediately clear.

The US launched its offensive amid a surge of militant attacks that have killed at least 430 people since April 28, when Iraq's first democratically elected government was announced.

Also yesterday, an American soldier was killed and four others wounded when a car bomb exploded in Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad, the military said.

The US military said yesterday that its forces have met little resistance in the Qaim area since the first two days of the offensive, when they confronted surprisingly well-organized and well-equipped insurgents fighting from rooftops and inside sandbag bunkers in the nearby town of Obeidi.

US forces have set up checkpoints on the outskirts of Qaim and launched airstrikes in villages less than 6 miles away, but now intelligence indicates most insurgents are either in hiding or have fled the region, Pool said.

Dozens of gunmen, however, were in plain sight yesterday, guarding major intersections and checking vehicles at the entrance to the town. The streets were largely deserted, and shops and markets were closed.

American warplanes roared overhead and plumes of smoke rose from nearby villages, but Qaim remained calm.

Thousands have fled Qaim since US warplanes and helicopter gunships pounded the region earlier this week, flattening homes and other buildings.

The US military has confirmed five Marine deaths so far and says about 100 insurgents have been killed in the operation. But a Washington Post reporter embedded with US forces put the American death toll Thursday at seven -- six of them from one squad.

The new interim prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, extended Iraq's state of emergency for another 30 days yesterday, effective from May 3. The emergency decree, which covers all of Iraq except the northern Kurdish-run areas, has been renewed monthly since it was first imposed Nov. 7. It includes a nighttime curfew and gives security forces powers of arrest without warrants.

At least nine more Iraqis were killed and 19 wounded in a series of bombings, ambushes, and other attacks yesterday.

In another development, Iraqi security forces, with help from the Shi'ite Muslim Badr Brigades militia, captured an Iraqi and four Palestinians who allegedly carried out a deadly Baghdad market bombing Thursday that killed at least 17 people.

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