Sixty killed as US launches major offensives on two fronts in Iraq

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The Independent Online

Battles on two fronts in Iraq claimed the lives of nearly 60 people identified by US military as insurgents yesterday, as marines and Iraqi forces launched major offensives. And, in other attacks, two US soldiers and four Iraqis died, and about 20 were injured.

Battles on two fronts in Iraq claimed the lives of nearly 60 people identified by US military as insurgents yesterday, as marines and Iraqi forces launched major offensives. And, in other attacks, two US soldiers and four Iraqis died, and about 20 were injured.

More than 50 of the insurgents died in Operation Spear, aimed at stopping the infiltration of foreign fighters from neighbouring Syria. More than 1,000 marines and Iraqi forces engaged in firefights in the dusty frontier town of Karabilah, about 200 miles west of Baghdad. About 100 insurgents have been captured, the US military said.

Another campaign of about the same size, Operation Dagger, was launched yesterday against insurgent training camps and weapons caches in the southern part of the Lake Tharthar area in central Iraq. This is the area where, in late March, US and Iraqi forces killed about 85 militants at a suspected training camp.

In a separate incident, the military announced that two US soldiers had been killed and one wounded during a small-arms skirmish with insurgents late on Friday while transporting a detainee north of Baghdad. A civilian and the detainee were also killed. At least 1,718 members of the US military have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Yesterday's heaviest action was in Operation Spear in Karabilah. Marines and Iraqi forces fought their way into the town and US fighter aircraft dropped bombs and the tanks fired shells at insurgents holed up inside buildings. As troops swept through buildings, four Iraqi hostages were found beaten, handcuffed and chained to a wall in a bunker. No Iraqi or American military casualties were reported.

The new campaign began just before dawn in the desert wastes around Karabilah and Qaim, a lawless town west of Baghdad that squats at the crossroads of an insurgent smuggling route leading into Iraq from Syria. During Friday's assault, troops found at least one car bomb factory.

While Iraqi troops did not participate in the earlier anti-insurgent offensives, this time they not only fought alongside Americans, but also used their language skills and knowledge of the area to spot foreign fighters. US military intelligence officials believe the area in Iraq's western desert is the main entry point used by extremist groups such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al-Qa'ida in Iraq to smuggle foreign fighters into the country. Syria is under intense pressure from Washington and Baghdad to tighten control of its porous 380-mile border with Iraq.

Marines carried out two major operations in this area last month, killing 125 insurgents in the first campaign, Operation Matador, and 14 in the second, Operation New Market. Eleven marines were killed in those two actions, designed to scatter and eradicate insurgents using the road from Damascus to Baghdad.

In a separate incident, insurgent attacks in Baghdad killed at least four people, including two Iraqi soldiers and a 10-year-old girl. A suicide car bomber slammed into an Iraqi army convoy in the capital's western Yarmouk neighbourhood, killing two soldiers and wounding six at the road known as the Street of Death, which leads from central Baghdad to the airport. The girl died when a roadside bomb missed a passing American military convoy.

Doctors at the main hospital in Baquba, north of Baghdad, have gone on strike, saying they are fed up with constant abuse at the hands of aggressive Iraqi police and soldiers. Staff and security guards at the hospital, the largest in the province with more than 100 doctors, handed a petition to the director yesterday saying they would handle only emergency cases.

"We want the governor and the minister to do something to protect us from the organised terrorism of the police and army," said Mohammed Hazim, a specialist at Baquba General Hospital. "There is continuous harassment at the hands of the police and army. They are rude, very disrespectful and aggressive."

Doctors said that on Friday night, in the latest of several incidents in recent weeks, members of an elite police rapid reaction unit had contacted the hospital's security staff to tell them to alert doctors to get ready for patients. Dozens of armed police, some in uniform and all carrying weapons, then turned up with wounded colleagues demanding treatment. Dr Ali Hussein said he had tried to treat one policeman, but when he told him that he was going to need an X-ray, the officer became abusive. "He told me to go to hell and then started to beat me," Dr Hussein said. "Then he told other policemen to put a bag over my head and they tried to take me out to their cars. Our security guards tried to stop them, telling them I was a doctor, but they didn't listen and beat the security guards too. Then one of them put a gun to my head and threatened me."

Other doctors and security staff corroborated Dr Hussein's account of the incident, saying they were stunned by the behaviour of the police. "I swear they were not normal. They seemed drunk or medicated - they were crazed," another doctor said. He said he had signed the petition handed to the hospital director. "No one can work with police with weapons all around."

Meanwhile, coming under renewed attack for his rationale for invading Iraq, and with no sign that the conflict is coming to an end, President George Bush called the war a "vital test" for American security. "The mission isn't easy, and it will not be accomplished overnight," he said yesterday in his weekly radio address, once again linking the the war to the broader US "war on terrorism".

French citizens become 'hostages of choice' for insurgents

By John Lichfield in Paris

French citizens are now the "hostages of choice" for the many radical Islamist splinter groups in Iraq, despite President Jacques Chirac's opposition to the Bush-Blair war two years ago.

By making generous payments, above the going rate, to release three journalists in the past six months, France has in effect placed its own citizens in Iraq at high risk. Both the French ambassador in Iraq (in private) and the French Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin (in coded language in public) warned this week that semi-criminal opposition groups in Iraq were on the lookout for new French hostages.

M de Villepin warned that French citizens should stay away from Iraq because there was now a "thriving hostage market" there. The ambassador, Bernard Bajolet, has warned in private messages to Paris, according to the French press, that the taking of another French hostage is only a matter of time. He has sent urgent messages to the handful of French citizens remaining in Iraq - one journalist, and a few businessmen and bodyguards - that they should leave the country immediately.

Officially, no ransoms have been paid by Paris but everything points to the payment of a de facto bounty for the release last Saturday of the journalist Florence Aubenas, kidnapped in January. The head of the French press freedom pressure group Reporters sans Frontières, Robert Ménard, said last week it was "obvious" that a ransom had been paid.

The investigative newspaper Le Canard Enchainé reported that $15m had been "spent" by the French secret service to secure the release of two other French journalists, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, last December. Technically, this was spent on "intermediaries" and "operating expenses" but a large part is believed to have found its way to the hostage-takers.