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Iraq Transition

U.S.: Fighting toughest yet in western Iraq offensive

Five Marines killed in Wednesday battles

Marines provide security for other platoon members during Operation Steel Curtain near Husayba.


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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- U.S.-led fighting to drive insurgents from the western Iraqi town of Ubaydi has been the toughest so far of the military offensive called Operation Steel Curtain, an American commander said Thursday.

Five U.S. Marines and 16 suspected insurgents were killed in battles Wednesday, the military said.

More than 200 suspected insurgents have been killed since the offensive's November 5 launch, including 89 in Ubaydi, said Col. Stephen Davis.

In other violence Wednesday, a roadside bomb attack killed a U.S. Marine near the western city of Haditha, the military said.

On Thursday, a U.S. soldier was killed and four others injured in a vehicle accident about 125 miles (202 kilometers) north of Baghdad, the military said.

The U.S. death toll in the Iraq war stands at 2,081.

Ubaydi third town targeted

Near the Syrian border, Ubaydi is the third town targeted by U.S. and Iraqi forces, following Karabila and Husayba.

President Bush has accused Syria of doing little to stop foreign fighters from crossing its border with Iraq and attacking U.S. and Iraqi targets.

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has said his country cannot be expected to keep people from sneaking into Iraq.

In Wednesday's fighting in Operation Steel Curtain, four car bombs were destroyed, Davis said.

U.S. forces also destroyed at least two dozen bombs and three dozen car bombs before entering Ubaydi, officials said.

The military has detained 252 individuals in the town, 32 of whom were released Thursday.

"Numerous caches and significant items of intelligence value have been captured," Davis said.

After entering Ubaydi, U.S. and Iraqi forces set up a displaced persons camp for townspeople for two nights.

They received food, water and medical care in the camps, Davis said. Two women gave birth in the camp, he said.

As of Wednesday night, people began returning to the city, Davis said, adding that they should be back in their homes by Thursday night.

The town did not lose electricity or water in the fighting.

Official defends detainee facility

Iraq's interior minister on Thursday defended a government facility found to be holding dozens of prisoners, including some showing signs of torture, saying it held "the most criminal terrorists."

At a news conference, Interior Minister Bayan Jabr said that seven detainees showed marks of torture. The facility reportedly held up to 175 detainees. (Full story)

The U.S. military found the prisoners Sunday when they entered the building run by the Interior Ministry's police commandos while looking for a missing 15-year-old boy.

"Nobody was beheaded or killed," Jabr said. "You can be proud of our forces. Our forces ... respect human rights."

Waving a stack of passports in the air, he added: "These people, they didn't come from Pakistan or Iran. They are our Arab brothers who came to kill your children."

But Jabr pledged to hold anyone who has tortured a detainee accountable. "I will punish them if [an investigation] proves they are responsible for any violations," he said.

Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari has launched an immediate investigation, and acting Human Rights Minister Nermin Othman Hassan said other probes also had begun.

Jim Bullock, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, said that al-Jaafari's commission was to provide a preliminary report in a week and a final report in two weeks. Another commission, Bullock said, was inspecting all Iraqi detention facilities and was to report back in 30 days. Bullock also said the U.S. Justice Department and FBI were aiding in the investigation.

Sunni Arab leaders called for an international investigation, alleging that the detainees were all Sunnis and that the detentions and torture were part of a systematic effort by the Shiite-led government to intimidate Sunnis ahead of next month's election.

But Deputy Interior Minister Hussein Kamal called the allegations that a majority of detainees were Sunnis "nonsense."

Weapons probe also launched

Iraq also has launched an investigation into allegations -- which the Pentagon denies -- that U.S. soldiers aimed artillery rounds of flammable white phosphorous at civilians.

Pentagon officials said white phosphorous is a conventional weapon and is used for several purposes -- from creating smoke screens to marking targets -- and that it can be used against enemy combatants. The Pentagon said the military's use of white phosphorous is not not illegal and that it is not considered a chemical weapon.

U.S. military officials confirmed Wednesday that U.S. troops used white phosphorous during an offensive to rid Falluja, west of Baghdad, of insurgents in November 2004, but the officials denied an Italian report that the weapon was aimed at civilians. (Full story)

Other developments

  • A defense contractor who allegedly paid bribes, kickbacks and gratuities to unnamed officials of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq was ordered held by authorities following a federal court appearance Wednesday in Washington. The charges against U.S. businessman Philip Bloom remain under court seal. But an affidavit by the chief investigator for the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction revealed allegations of hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks, bid-rigging and money-laundering conspiracy. (Full story)
  • U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pennsylvania, a leading adviser on defense issues, called on Thursday for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, becoming the first senior lawmaker to do so. (Full story)
  • Vice President Dick Cheney on Wednesday lambasted Democrats accusing the Bush administration of misleading the country on prewar intelligence about Iraq, calling their allegations "one of the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in this city." (Full story)
  • CNN's Arwa Damon contributed to this report.

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