BAGHDAD, Iraq—About 1,000 U.S. Marines and Iraqi soldiers swept into the western Iraq town of Karabilah on Friday and, with fighter jets overhead, pushed along the Euphrates River valley near the Syrian border looking for guerrilla fighters.
A Marine news release said the troops were "rooting out terrorists, foreign fighters and disrupting terrorist-support systems."
But the head tribal sheik of the town, Osama Jadaan al Dulaimi, said the American troops were only further inflaming the rage and sense of persecution among the nation's minority Sunni Muslim community, the backbone of the insurgency that's killed thousands.
"Operation Spear" is the Marines' third major push into the Sunni heartland province of al Anbar since early May. U.S. military officials in Iraq have heralded the operations as a major part of the campaign to clamp down on insurgents, particularly those who've slipped over the Syrian border.
But Dulaimi and Fasal al Goud, another regional tribal leader, said with each offensive the Marines were creating more enemies than they killed.
Goud requested American assistance to kick out foreign fighters before the May offensive, but later said U.S. forces indiscriminately killed civilians and insurgents alike.
"Any operation will not eliminate these armed men unless there is a full cooperation with the citizens of that area," Goud said. "If they continue what they are doing now ... with both sides detaining people and killing people, the situation will settle down temporarily, and then after a while the armed men will take their positions again with help from locals seeking revenge."
American officials have recently said they anticipate negotiations between insurgents and intermediaries representing the Iraqi government.
Dulaimi said the Americans couldn't force insurgents or tribal leaders to negotiate by flexing their muscles.
"The Americans ... say the solution is not by military operations, but they are now using force," Dulaimi said. He said operations Friday in Karabilah killed at least 20 Iraqis and wounded about 45, including women and children—an assertion that couldn't be verified. "We've heard about negotiations, but who should we negotiate with, the Americans who keep no agreements?"
Marine officials in Anbar didn't respond to inquiries about Dulaimi's remarks or casualty figures.
Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, a military spokesman in Baghdad, said "doing these kinds of operations is always difficult" but that it was the insurgency that took U.S. troops to towns such as Karabilah in the first place.
"The reason we have to go in is simply the fact that the insurgents, the terrorists, have embedded themselves in that area and we are left with few options," Boylan said.
A later release said four civilians had been wounded after insurgents seized their homes during the fighting.
"Only buildings occupied by terrorists firing on Marines and Iraqi soldiers were bombed," the statement said, noting that the four were the only civilian casualties the military reported.
The sheiks' remarks, in the midst of major U.S. operations in their areas, underscore the divide between the Sunni minority and the American and Iraqi administrations trying feverishly to include Sunnis in the political process.
Without credible Sunni leaders in the government, many in Iraq believe, the insurgency will keep killing and maiming soldiers and citizens. Some Sunnis, who enjoyed privilege under former dictator Saddam Hussein, are supporting the insurgency out of fear that the Shiite Muslim majority and its Kurdish allies—both persecuted by Saddam—will marginalize or crush them.
Al Anbar province has been the most consistently violent in Iraq, and Sunnis there say it's because their tribal code demands revenge when one of their own is killed.
The military announced Friday that two Marines had been killed by a roadside bomb the day before in the al Anbar town of Ramadi, adding up to 23 U.S. troops killed in the province during the past two weeks alone.
Karabilah has been no exception to the bloodshed.
During the Marines' operation in May—in which nine Marines and reportedly at least 125 insurgents were killed—six Marines died from a single roadside bomb in Karabilah.
Earlier this month U.S. helicopter and fighter-jet strikes reportedly killed 40 insurgents on the outskirts of Karabilah, where the heavily armed fighters had set up checkpoints.
In Baghdad on Friday, the speaker at Baratha mosque, which is affiliated with the nation's pre-eminent Shiite political party, said he was concerned that the rest of the country was leaving Sunni areas behind.
"They are moving from worse to worse," Jalal al Din Saghir said.
Across town, at the Sunni Um al Qura mosque, Ahmed al Samurraie told worshippers he hopes the nation remains united.
He said he held the Shiite-led government responsible for nine Iraqis who were taken from their homes last month and, according to family members, found murdered with their eyes missing and drill holes in their heads. All but two were Sunnis and, according to a relative, that pair had been accused recently of converting to Sunni Islam.
They were taken by a group of more than 30 men wearing Iraqi police and army uniforms, said Falah Hassan, whose two Shiite brothers—apparently mistaken for Sunnis—were among those rounded up.
"I recognized my brothers through the pictures taken by the morgue," Hassan said. "The bodies were tortured and mutilated in a horrible way. Their faces were drilled."
(Special correspondents Mohammed al Dulaimy, Yasser Salihee and Alaa al Baldawy contributed to this report from Baghdad.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.