RIBAT, Iraq -- The casualties mounted yesterday in remote Iraqi desert villages near the Syrian border as US troops launched their largest offensive since last year's invasion of Fallujah.
Insurgents have killed at least three Marines and wounded 20 more American troops trying to cross the Euphrates River in western Iraq. Marine commanders estimate that they have slain more than 100 guerrillas since the offensive began Sunday.
From a hilltop overlooking Ribat, a Los Angeles Times reporter traveling with members of the Second Marine Division could see insurgents driving to houses in the northern edge of the town, filling trucks with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and ferrying them to the south side of the village where the battle was taking place.
Children stood near one of the houses. A woman casually hung clothes on a line. Marines held their fire.
Yesterday, more than 1,000 Marines, sailors, and soldiers from Regimental Combat Team 2 crossed to the north side of the Euphrates River. The US troops prepared for a large-scale assault today in the region's scattered villages.
Marines hope the assault will flush out insurgent fighters who the Marines believe have made the Ramana region a safe haven and training ground for foreign guerrillas from Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, and other countries. The Second Marine Division is responsible for security in Al Anbar province, a desert region the size of South Carolina that runs from Jordan in the south to Syria in the north.
''The insurgents we're fighting today are not the guys getting $50 to put [a roadside bomb] on the side of the road," said Regiment Commander Colonel Stephen Davis. ''These are the professional fighters who have come from all over the Middle East. These are people who have received training and are very well armed."
The Marines say that capturing or killing insurgents in these villages is key to pacifying Iraq. Recruits from western Iraq and much of the nation's Sunni Arab heartland fuel the insurgency.
Foreign fighters pour across the border here to volunteer as suicide bombers, the guerrillas' most potent weapons, which in the last month have claimed scores of Iraqi lives.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born militant who leads an Al Qaeda group in Iraq, is said to travel this region with impunity, granted the protection of powerful Sunni Arab clans resisting US forces and their Iraqi allies.
The US operation had been delayed a day because of insurgent attacks from at least two nearby cities.
Guerrillas appeared well prepared, with sandbag bunkers piled in front of some homes, and fighters strategically positioned on rooftops and balconies.
In nearby Sabah, New Ubaydi, and Karabilah, insurgents fired mortar rounds at Marine convoys along the river's southern edge. Marines who pursued attackers in those towns took part in house-to-house combat against dozens of well-armed insurgents.
One Marine was walking into a house when an insurgent hiding in the basement fired through a floor grate, killing him. Another Marine, who was retrieving a wounded comrade inside a house, suffered shrapnel wounds when an insurgent threw a grenade through a window.
Three Cobra helicopters pummeled insurgent positions for several hours, raining machine-gun fire and Hellfire missiles on houses suspected of hiding weapons caches.
A US helicopter fired on boats being used by insurgents to transport weapons from one side of the river to the other. An F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet dropped a laser-guided bomb on a truck used by insurgents, eviscerating the vehicle and a nearby house.
Marines had planned to push the insurgents from the eastern and southern parts of Ramana into mountains along the Syrian border.
A platoon of Marines was deployed to those jagged slopes to block escape routes, but no guerrillas fled there on the first day of sustained fighting.
''They were clearly holding their ground," Davis said. ''This continues to be a problem area. They've got seasoned fighters out here -- this is a dedicated enemy that needs to be rooted out. That could take days, or weeks, or months. We'll stay here until it's done."
The push comes amid a surge of militant attacks that have killed more than 310 people since April 28, when the new Iraqi government was announced. At least four car bombs exploded in Baghdad yesterday, killing at least five people and wounding 15, the Associated Press reported. Three Iraqis were killed in one of the attacks.
Meanwhile, militants claimed in an Internet posting to have captured a Japanese man after ambushing a British security company's convoy in western Iraq. It wasn't clear whether that attack was related to the US operation, which was about 80 miles away.