US military launches major offensive in hunt for insurgents in western Iraq

The U.S. military launched a major offensive Friday with 1,000 Marines and Iraqi soldiers to hunt for insurgents and foreign fighters in a volatile western province straddling Syria.

Operation Spear started in the pre-dawn hours around Karabilah, a frontier town in Anbar province where U.S. forces said they killed 40 militants in airstrikes on June 11.

The operation came one day after Air Force Brig. Gen. Don Alston called the Syrian border the "worst problem" in terms of stemming the influx of foreign fighters to Iraq. Syria is under intense pressure from Washington and Baghdad to tighten control of its porous 380-mile (611-kilometer) border with Iraq.

The Marines have lost 11 men and two sailors over the past week in separate incidents around Anbar.

In Baghdad, a suicide car bomber slammed into a loaded fuel tanker as it drove through Baghdad's eastern suburbs Friday, killing two people and injuring another six, police said. The car hit the tanker after it missed an Iraqi army patrol in the Kamaliyah suburb.

A second suicide car bomber targeting a senior police commander killed two civilians and wounded 11 others including seven more civilians and four traffic officers in Fallujah, police officer Samir Ali said.

Maj. Gen. Mahdi Sabih, police brigade commander for the Interior Ministry's new public order unit, escaped unharmed. Sabih, also Fallujah's mayor, had just attended a ceremony and was leaving when the attacker rammed a white sedan into the crowd, Ali said.

Fallujah is a town in Anbar province 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of Baghdad.

There have been nearly 1,100 violent deaths linked to the insurgency since the Shiite-led government took office seven weeks ago. Jordanian-born terrorist leader Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi's hope to provoke sectarian war suffered a setback Thursday when the Shiite-led parliament and leaders of the disaffected Sunni Arab minority, which is thought to provide the backbone of the insurgency, agreed on a process for drafting Iraq's constitution.

In the capital, Iraqi police Sgt. Najim Abdullah said U.S. forces opened fire in a western neighborhood late Thursday, killing a 10-year-old boy while he was walking on a street.

The U.S. military confirmed Friday that a child was killed during an "escalation of force" incident between a vehicle and a U.S. Army foot patrol in western Baghdad at around 9 p.m. (1700 GMT) Thursday.

"We are aggressively investigating this unfortunate incident," said Sgt. 1st Class David Abrams, a spokesman for Task Force Baghdad.

A suicide car bomber rammed into an Iraqi army convoy in northern Iraq early Friday, injuring at least seven people - three soldiers, three civilians and one policeman, police Brig. Gen. Sarhat Qadir said.

On June 11, the Marines had engaged insurgents after the militants took control of a road just outside Karabilah near the Iraqi-Syrian frontier city of Qaim, about 320 kilometers (200 miles) west of Baghdad.

The battle was also where insurgents had killed 21 people after beheading three of them. Those bodies, found on June 10, were believed to belong to a group of missing Iraqi soldiers.

During the airstrikes, Marine aircraft fired seven precision-guided missiles at insurgents armed with AK-47 assault rifles, medium machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. No U.S. troops or civilians were injured.

Separately, U.S. Staff Sgt. Alberto B. Martinez, of Troy, New York, was charged with murder Wednesday in the deaths last week of two Army officers at a base north of Baghdad, the military said Thursday.

The military initially attributed the June 7 killings of the officers - Capt. Phillip T. Esposito and 1st Lt. Louis E. Allen - to an insurgent mortar attack near Tikrit but said further investigation showed the blast pattern was inconsistent with such an attack.

Martinez, 37, a supply specialist with the Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 42nd Infantry Division, a New York-based National Guard unit, is facing two counts of premeditated murder, according to a statement from Multi-National Corps, Iraq.

He was being held at a military jail in Kuwait and has been assigned a military attorney and has the option of hiring a civilian lawyer, the statement said.

FRANK GRIFFITHS, Associated Press Writer

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