AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq – More than 1,000 Marines and soldiers near the Syrian border completed a weeklong offensive Saturday, the coalition’s biggest campaign since last year’s bloody Fallujah battle in terms of insurgents reportedly killed, more than 115, and the number of troops deployed. Nine Marines were also killed.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, a top Iraqi Foreign Ministry official was apparently assassinated in a drive-by shooting while he stood outside his home, authorities said. Police said Jassim Mohammed Ghani, the ministry’s director general, was killed late Saturday night in western Baghdad. Three bystanders were reported injured.

The Marines declared their mission to weed out foreign fighters and their arms entering Iraq through a Syrian smuggling route a “success.” The offensive targeted collaborators of militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who were using cave complexes in an escarpment on the north side of Euphrates River, a regional staging area for terror strikes against Baghdad and other large cities such as Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul, the military said.

However, nine Marines were killed. All were with the 2nd Marine Division’s Regimental Combat Team-2, which led Operation Matador. Six died in one incident, when a mine destroyed an amphibious assault vehicle. Forty more U.S. service members were wounded during the offensive, officials said.

The border battle unfolded as more than 400 people across Iraq were killed in a new round of insurgent attacks after the formation of the country’s new government April 28.

“Regimental Combat Team-2 started and ended this operation as planned, accomplished its mission and secured all objectives,” said Maj. Gen. R.A. Huck, commanding general of 2nd Marine Division. “Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces will return again to this area in the future.”

U.S. forces began the offensive last Sunday as they constructed a bridge to cross the Euphrates just outside the village of Ubaydi. There was information that insurgents had been gathering in the lush plains of Ramana on the north side of the river, and U.S. commanders assembled 1,000 Marines, soldiers and sailors to cordon and search the banks and cave-riddled cliffs.

Suddenly anti-coalition fighters launched mortars from behind the U.S. forces, and seven days of warfare ensued. U.S. aircraft bombed suspected safehouses in riverfront towns such as Karabilah on the river’s south side.

While some residents on the outskirts of Ubaydi told The Associated Press that the fighters were Iraqi tribesmen and not foreigners, U.S. officers again said Saturday that the insurgents were outsiders. Col. Stephen Davis, the mission’s commander, has said the presence of foreign fighters was conclusively confirmed during the operation.

Marines also said they found fighters bearing the markings of an organized force, such as body armor, and U.S. forces also said they discovered suicide-bomb vests and six car bombs under preparation.

Two assistant operations officers with Regimental Combat Team-2 said that the hunt for foreign fighters will continue as plans for the next phase unfold.

“It’s to interdict the insurgents who seek to disrupt the development of the country after the elections,” said one operations officer who asked not to be named.

The operations officers said counting the number of insurgents killed is difficult because, for example, U.S. forces estimate the number of anti-coalition fighters entering a building before it is blown up. The combat team’s headquarters at Al Asad Air Base in Anbar province estimated 115 insurgents killed, but a statement by the Multi-National Forces put the figure at 125, 70 of them killed in the first hours of engagement.

In addition, 39 people deemed terrorists “with intelligence value” were being detained after the operation, military officials said.

(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-05-14-05 1756EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.