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U.S. Offensive Kills 100 Insurgents in Iraq

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I've Steve Inskeep with Renee Montagne.

American troops in Iraq got a reminder today, if any was needed, of the kind of insurgency they're facing. A car bomb exploded near a Baghdad movie theater. At least seven people were killed. A US military convoy was passing by at the time. The effort to stop such attacks stretches from Baghdad far out to the northwest. The US is moving ground forces and intelligence operations into the area near the border with Syria. It's an effort to block suspected infiltration of foreign fighters. Several reporters are embedded with different units in this offensive, and we're going to get the impressions of one this morning. James Janega of the Chicago Tribune is embedded with the 3rd Battalion of the 2nd Marine Regiment. He's at the headquarters of the offensive.

Mr. Janega, welcome.

Mr. JAMES JANEGA (Chicago Tribune): Thank you. Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Can you just describe what the countryside looks like where you are and what's happening there?

Mr. JANEGA: Well, this part of Iraq is very much that sort of surreal desert environment that a lot of people picture when they think of the deserts of the Middle East. About the only place where life really exists in any measurable way is along the Euphrates River, which stretches from Syria down to the Iraqi capital in Baghdad.

INSKEEP: And is that where the operations are concentrated, along the Euphrates River?

Mr. JANEGA: It is indeed, yes. The American troops and Marines are operating this area. Generally, they stay to their bases, but this operation is designed to go north of the Euphrates River, where they seldom go but where their intelligence has indicated that in the past weeks and months that foreign fighters may be massing. So that is what the Marines are trying to find now.

INSKEEP: OK. Now when you say foreign fighters massing, this isn't the kind of insurgency where fighters have necessarily massed in the hundreds or thousands. What is it the US military thinks is really happening there?

Mr. JANEGA: Massing is a relative term. An an area about nine miles across from the Syrian border inland along the Euphrates River, they think there may be as many as 200 to 300 insurgents spread throughout several villages. They're looking in those villages because they believe that there are trained fighters which, to the Americans, translates as foreign insurgents that have been trained either here or elsewhere. And their intelligence is that that's where they are. They don't know for sure, and that's what they're trying to find out.

INSKEEP: And there were reports that 75 foreign fighters had been killed, according to the US military. How fierce was the fighting?

Mr. JANEGA: On Sunday and early Monday, it was quite fierce in the town of Obeidi, which was not one of the towns that the Marines had intended to invade. They actually intended to go on--put a bridge head there and cross north of the river at that point but were delayed in putting the bridge in and began taking fire from the town. So they turned around and spent most of Sunday and part of Monday fighting in the town. The fighting there was quite a surprise to them, they said, because they found insurgents with fortified positions inside the town, you know, sandbags in front of doorways. The fighting was really fierce at times, and it was certainly sustained. You know, at times, you had air assets coming in, like F-18s, who were doing strafing runs along tree lines, and Cobra gunships, helicopter gunships firing rockets into buildings where there was concentrated fire at the Marines. It was quite a battle on Sunday. Things have quieted down since then.

INSKEEP: And in that time since the battle on Sunday, have US military officials told you anything that they've learned about who these fighters were, for example, whether they seemed to be Iraqis or foreigners?

Mr. JANEGA: It's hard to say. They don't know really who they're dealing with and probably won't until they have a chance to interrogate some of the detainees that they've managed to capture. They do have suspicions that some of these were foreign fighters just by the way that some of them were equipped. Some were wearing bullet-proof vests which the American intelligence officials believe is a sign that they are, you know, equipped from outside the country. You don't see that with hometown insurgency, they say.

INSKEEP: Chicago Tribune reporter James Janega is embedded with US Marines in northwestern Iraq.

Thanks, very much.

Mr. JANEGA: No problem. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.