A force of 1,000 US soldiers launched Operation ‘Iron Fist’ in and around the village of Sadah in the restive Euphrates Valley on Saturday, the latest offensive aimed at rooting out Al-Qaeda-linked insurgents in the border region.
“Coalition Forces, including helicopters from 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, engaged and killed eight armed terrorists in fighting early in the day October 1,” said a US military statement.
Al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq said in an Internet statement that it had abducted two US marines involved in the offensive and threatened to kill them unless US forces release Sunni Muslim female prisoners within 24 hours.
“The Al-Qaeda soldiers were able to take two so-called ‘marines’ captive after they encircled a foot patrol of the crusaders in the western region,” said Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda Organisation in the Land of Two Rivers.
The statement, whose authenticity could not be confirmed, said the patrol was taking part in “the so-called ‘Iron Fist'” offensive along the Syrian border.
“Al-Qaeda Organisation in the Land of Two Rivers gives the crusaders 24 hours to release Sunni Muslim women from their and their (Shiite) lackeys’ prisons,” in Iraq, said the statement on an Islamist website.
The statement warned that unless the women prisoners were freed, the US army should “not bother to look for their sons.”
“Let it be known to them that the mujahedeen (holy warriors) are itching to slaughter those (alleged hostages) … to avenge the blood of the Sunni people being shed at their (Americans’) hands and the hands of their stooges in the apostate (Iraqi) government,” the statement said.
The US military said however there were “no indications that Al-Qaeda claims of having kidnapped two marines in western Iraq are true”.
US forces are “conducting checks to verify all marines are accounted for and more information will be provided as information becomes available,” it said.
Last month US and Iraqi forces mounted a large-scale operation to recapture the town of Tal Afar, in northwestern Iraq, which had fallen under the sway of insurgents.
The United States has long accused Syria of not doing enough to stop foreign fighters crossing into Iraq, charges Damascus denies.
The operation, also aimed at improving security ahead of the vote on the country’s post-Saddam Hussein constitution, came as the militia of radical cleric Moqtada Sadr said they had freed the interior minister’s kidnapped brother.
A spokesman for the Shiite leader said that members of the Mehdi Army had freed Bayan Baqer Sulagh’s brother, Abdul Jabar, after he was abducted on Saturday.
“Four members of the Mehdi Army, who were patrolling near Sadr City… saw a suspect car without license plates. They followed them and the occupants opened fire,” said Abbas al-Rubaie.
During the chase, the car’s occupants “opened the car door and threw out” Abdul Jabar, he said.
Speaking in Jordan ahead of the reported release, the minister suggested the kidnappers aimed to pressure him.
In Baghdad, the director general of the ministry of municipalities and public works, Safaa Mohammed Jassim, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen as he drove his car in the west of the city, an interior ministry official said.
A police captain was killed by unidentified gunmen in another attack in western Baghdad, he added, while a civilian was killed and six wounded when four mortar shells fell around the interior ministry.
Three bomb explosions were reported elsewhere in Baghdad, including one involving a remote-controlled booby-trapped car which blew up as bomb disposal experts approached it. There were no injuries.
The wife of a policeman was shot dead and her son wounded in Kirkuk when gunmen tried to kill her husband as the family were out in a car, police said.
Hundreds of members of Iraq’s majority Shiite population have been killed in attacks since Al-Qaeda frontman Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group last month declared all-out war on Shiites.
There are fears of an upsurge in violence by Sunni-led insurgents with just two weeks to go before Iraqis vote on a post-Saddam constitution that has deeply divided the country’s ethnic communities.
Government statistics obtained by AFP showed that the number of Iraqis killed in attacks in September was a third up on August, rising from 526 to 702, most of them civilians.
Those killed fell victim to one motorbike and 32 car bombs, 50 shootings, two walk-in suicide bombers and several mortar attacks.