Fourteen US Marines were killed on Wednesday when a roadside bomb struck their amphibious assault vehicle in western Iraq in one of the single bloodiest insurgent attacks against a foreign military target since US-led invasion of Iraq.
The bomb caught a Marine combat patrol around near Haditha, 200km west of Baghdad in the Euphrates valley, also killing a civilian interpreter and wounding one Marine, the US military said.
The attack brought to 21 the number of Marines killed in the area this week, shattering hopes that the strength of Sunni Arab guerrillas in the area was waning after US operations to crush their centres of resistance.
On Monday, insurgents killed six Marines on a foot patrol outside Haditha with small-arms fire. The same day, another Marine was killed by a suicide car bomb around nearby Hit.
Haditha, which lies along the main highway from the Syrian border, is part of the network of the towns through which insurgents allegedly funnel money and weapons into Iraq to sustain their anti-US and antigovernment campaign.
US Marines, backed up by air power, have launched a series of encircling and raiding operations to clean out western Iraq as far as the border zone of al-Qaim, 130km beyond Haditha.
Yet suicide bombers seem to get through, with US military statistics suggesting insurgent suicide attacks throughout Iraq have averaged at least one per day during the same period as the Marine operations.
According to area residents, Haditha has become a no-go area for US patrols and Iraqi government security forces. Guerrilla leaders, have proclaimed Islamic law in the city and ordered a ban on the wearing of jeans and the display of other symbols of western culture, residents said.
“The town is safe. It is controlled by insurgents, but they attack the US troops on the outskirts,” according to a Baghdad-based trade ministry employee with tribal ties to Haditha.
In spite of fighting in the west, US commanders cite the siege and capture of Falluja last November as a strategic turning point in their battle against the insurgents and “the single most important” operation in the ongoing guerrilla conflict.
The joint Marine and Army operation in Falluja, which the US military said killed 1,200 insurgents, was followed by a substantial fall in the rate of reported US military casualties during the first half of this year.
But the improved US figures were also accompanied by rising casualties among Iraqi security forces and civilians, amid intensified bombing since the end of April, when the current Iraqi government was formed.
Additional reporting by Awadh al-Taiee and Dhiya Rasan