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Troops press raids in western Iraq

Scores of civilians evacuate Al Qaeda stronghold, US says

BAGHDAD -- Scores of terrified Iraqi civilians fled a besieged town yesterday, waving white flags and hauling their belongings to escape a second day of fighting between US Marines and Al Qaeda-led militants along the Syrian border. US and Iraqi troops battled insurgents house to house, the US military said.

The US commander of the joint force, Colonel Stephen W. Davis, said late yesterday that his troops had moved ''about halfway" through Husaybah, a market town along the Euphrates River about 200 miles northwest of Baghdad.

At least 36 insurgents have been killed since the assault began Saturday and about 200 men have been detained, Davis said. He did not give a breakdown of nationalities of the detainees.

Davis would not comment on US and Iraqi government casualties but said the militants were putting up a tough fight because ''this area is near and dear to the insurgents, particularly the foreign fighters."

''This has been the first stop for foreign fighters, and this is strategic ground for them," he said by telephone.

Earlier yesterday, Brigadier General Donald Alston, a US military spokesman, told reporters in Baghdad that none of the 3,500 US and Iraqi troops of the joint force had been killed.

In a statement, the US Marines said that American jets struck at least 10 targets around the town yesterday and that the US-Iraqi force was ''clearing the city, house by house," taking fire from insurgents holed up in homes, mosques, and schools.

Residents of the area said by satellite phone that sounds of explosions diminished somewhat yesterday, although bursts of automatic weapons fire could be heard throughout the day. The residents said coalition forces warned people by loudspeakers to leave on foot because troops would fire on vehicles.

''I left everything behind -- my car, my house," said Ahmed Mukhlef, 35, a teacher who fled Husaybah early yesterday with his wife and two children. ''I don't care if my house is bombed or looted, as long as I have my kids and wife safe with me."

The Marines said about 450 people had taken refuge in a vacant housing area in Husaybah under the control of Iraqi forces. Others were believed to have fled to relatives in nearby towns and villages in the predominantly Sunni Arab area of Anbar Province.

US officials have described Husaybah, which once had a population of about 30,000, as a stronghold of Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Jordanian extremist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Husaybah had long been identified as an entry point for foreign fighters, weapons, and ammunition from neighboring Syria. From Husaybah, the fighters head down the Euphrates valley to Baghdad and other cities.

Several people identified as key Al Qaeda in Iraq officials have been killed in recent airstrikes in the Husaybah area, the US military has said. Most were described as facilitators who helped smuggle would-be suicide bombers from Syria.

Damascus has denied helping militants sneak into Iraq, and witnesses said Syrian border guards had stepped up surveillance on their side of the border since the assault on Husaybah began.

The Americans hope the Husaybah operation will help restore security in the area so that the Sunni Arab population can participate in Dec. 15 national parliamentary elections.

If the Sunnis win a significant number of seats in the new parliament, the Americans hope that will persuade more members of the minority to lay down their arms and join the political process, enabling US and other international troops to begin withdrawing next year.

''The insurgents are throwing everything they have at the Iraqi people and coalition forces in an effort to derail Iraq's democratic reforms," Alston said.

He said the offensive is aimed at interrupting the supply lines that Al Qaeda in Iraq uses to launch suicide attacks in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.

In Baghdad, Mohsen Abdul-Hamid, head of the largest Sunni Arab political party, criticized ''all military operations directed against civilian targets" because they ''lead to the killing of innocent people and the destruction of towns and cities."

Saleh al-Mutlaq, head of another Sunni faction and a member of the committee that drafted the new constitution, accused the Americans and their Iraqi allies of mounting ''a destructive and killing operation of secure cities and villages" on the ''pretext that they hide and secure terrorists."

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