BAGHDAD, Iraq – Facing an insurgency that shows no signs of abating in the desert wasteland and mud-hut villages of western Iraq, U.S. military leaders turned their attention to guerrilla supply routes Tuesday, damaging two Euphrates River bridges used by militants to move fighters and equipment from the Syrian border into Iraq’s heartland.

Recent U.S. offensives and airstrikes have failed to drive pockets of insurgents out of western Iraq’s Anbar province, which has long been a stronghold for Sunni-led insurgents and foreign fighters slipping into the country from Syria.

The Washington Post and The Associated Press reported Tuesday that militants led by Iraq’s most wanted insurgent, the Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had seized control of Qaim, a key city near the Syrian border. Spokespeople for the U.S. military said they had no information to corroborate the reports.

The strikes on the bridges were carried out by F/A-18 fighter jets, which dropped concrete-filled bombs designed to create craters in the structures without destroying them. The bridges were located near the village of Karabilah.

“The purpose of the strike was to prevent Al Qaeda in Iraq terrorists from using the structure for vehicular traffic to conduct attacks in the al Anbar province,” a U.S. military statement said. “Iraqi citizens in western al Anbar have experienced an increased level of violence at the hands of Al Qaeda in Iraq terrorists.”

Coalition troops also destroyed a safe house near Karabilah on Tuesday, after killing two foreign fighters hiding there and arresting three others, the U.S. military said.

During an exchange of gunfire between coalition forces and militants holed up in the building, one coalition soldier was wounded by friendly fire.

In recent weeks, U.S. forces have been pinpointing the location of insurgent safe houses and using precision-guided bombs to destroy them. Airstrikes on three insurgent safe houses near the Syrian border Aug. 30 killed several militants, though Arab television reported that dozens of civilians were killed. Early this year, U.S. forces launched several offensives in western Anbar province aimed at keeping insurgents from using the Euphrates River valley as a conduit for new fighters and supplies.

Insurgents have bounced back, however. In addition to reportedly establishing a presence in Qaim, militants launched three suicide car bomb attacks Sunday on U.S. and Iraqi targets in the Anbar city of Hit, 85 miles west of Baghdad, killing 15 people – 11 of them civilians.

Though progress in western Iraq has been slow, U.S. and Iraqi officials have been encouraged by reports of tribes in Anbar province taking up arms against insurgents and their loyalists. Fighting between pro-insurgent factions and pro-government tribes left at least 35 dead last month.

In Baghdad, government officials announced that talks between the majority Shiite-Kurdish alliance and Sunni Arabs came to an end without any accord reached on possible changes to the country’s draft constitution. The printing of 5 million copies for voters will begin Thursday.

From the start, Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority has opposed language in the draft that decentralizes state power and creates autonomous regions in the Kurdish north and in Iraq’s southern Shiite provinces. The nation’s oil wealth is concentrated in those regions, and Sunnis worry they will be shut out from that wealth under a decentralized form of government.

Iraqi voters will go to the polls Oct. 15 to decide whether to ratify the draft constitution. If two-thirds of voters in any three of Iraq’s 18 provinces reject the draft, or if a majority nationwide votes against it, the country would have to elect a new transitional parliament and begin the drafting process anew.

In central Baghdad, two U.S. soldiers died Tuesday when their vehicle struck a homemade bomb, causing it to turn over, the U.S. military said. Two other soldiers were wounded.

On Monday, roadside bombs killed a U.S. soldier in the northern city of Tal Afar, and a Marine during fighting in Ramadi, the U.S. military said Tuesday.

(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune.

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