US marines began the latest in a series of operations Saturday to root out insurgents who have infiltrated remote towns along the Syrian border. But if past offenses in the region are any lesson, the hardest part may be keeping insurgents from returning once the fighting has stopped.
In the first days of Operation Iron Fist, US troops killed at least eight insurgents in gun battles that broke out as they scoured the small town of Sadah, located near Qaim in Anbar Province. The remote border town was abandoned by most of its 2,000 residents as they were forewarned of the battle by the Americans.
Some 1,000 marines, soldiers, and sailors engaged in the operation that is a smaller part of Operation Hunter meant to stabilize the troubled Euphrates River Valley before the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum, which Sunni insurgents have vowed to disrupt.
The operation in Sadah, comes on the heels of similar battles in Qaim and, farther north, Tal Afar. The towns run along the Syrian border that is seen as a gateway for fighters and funds supporting the insurgency. The Marines said Sadah and the surrounding area is a "known terrorist sanctuary."
According to one senior US marine commander, insurgents connected to militant leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi have overrun at least five towns along the border of Syria, the San Francisco Chronicle reported last week. They have taken over the towns, caused residents to flee, and established strict Islamic law there, the Chronicle reported.
Mr. Zarqawi, who leads Al Qaeda in Iraq, has controlled the towns for about a month, the commander said.
The operation in Sadah comes just four months after two sieges on neighboring Qaim were meant to rid the area of insurgents. In Tal Afar, after a siege involving thousands of US and Iraqi troops in which the military said it killed some 150 insurgents in September, a female suicide bomber blew herself up there near Iraqi Army recruits last week.
"In the case of Iraq they must maintain a ground presence," says Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore. "Otherwise they are only killing a few insurgents."
The nearly 150,000 US troops in Iraq are not enough to maintain security in the towns they wrest from insurgent control, says Mr. Gunaratna.
"I think if they are going to maintain a ground presence they will have to bring in more troops. But these should be from the UN, Muslim countries, and European countries," Gunaratna says. "If they were just American troops they will be killed because they are not liked by the Iraqis."
Convincing other countries to contribute more troops to Iraq would be an uphill battle for the Bush administration as the number of countries participating in the coalition in Iraq has already grown steadily smaller since the US-led invasion in 2003.
Sending more American troops might prove even more difficult as the administration is struggling to maintain support for the current troop levels against a growing tide of public opinion toward bringing them home.
So far, there do not appear to be enough Iraqi soldiers and police trained and combat-ready to stay behind in the towns after the fighting is done to maintain order. In fact, top military commanders testifying before Congress last week noted that two of the three Iraqi Army battalions that had been rated "Level 1," capable of performing operations on their own, have been downgraded.
In Sadah, unlike in Tal Afar and Qaim, the Marines did not mention whether Iraqi troops were participating in the operation, which is the fourth largest US operation in the area along the Syrian border since May.
Before the assault began there, Marines said insurgents had "escalated their intimidation and murder campaign against the local populace and city government officials" and as a result had won "an increased ability to move freely within the area and a base for them to launch attacks."
On Saturday, US forces killed four fighters and captured a fifth in two separate gun battles. Many of the insurgents were hiding in houses and had planted IEDs, improvised explosive devises, throughout the town. No marines have been reported killed in the fighting so far.
It's still unclear if insurgents in Sadah will adopt a tactic seen repeatedly in previous operations in Iraq that takes a page from classic guerrilla warfare doctrine: Retreat when attacked, attack when the foe is at rest.
Often in Iraq, a small force of insurgents will stay behind to delay incoming troops while the bulk of the fighters retreat, reserving their attacks for when troops aren't expecting it. Such a tactic was used last month in Tal Afar, where insurgents appeared to just melt away after a few firefights. Later a network of underground tunnels used by the retreating fighters was discovered.
Many residents fled Sadah village into Syria before the offensive began, witnesses said, and the 1,000 US soldiers involved appeared to be widening the sweep into two nearby towns.
In Karabila, troops with loudspeakers warned residents to stay inside their homes for their own safety Sunday, witnesses said. In Rumana, a town on the other side of the Euphrates River, helicopters fired on several houses, sending plumes of black smoke up into the air, the witnesses said, speaking on condition of anonymity out of concern for their security.
A US military spokeswoman in Baghdad said she could not immediately confirm that the offensive had expanded from Sadah to Karabila and Rumana.
Elsewhere, insurgents kidnapped the brother of Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, the Shiite official who heads police forces, in Baghdad on Saturday, and the son of another top ministry official was kidnapped north of the capital, police said.
• Material from the Associated Press contributed to this article.