BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. Marines backed by helicopters battled hundreds of Iraqi insurgents Sunday near the Syrian border, where an ambush killed five Marines. At least 10 Iraqis, including the city police chief, have been killed in two days of fighting, a hospital official said.
Meanwhile, U.S. forces struggled to maintain control of Iraq’s highways. The military announced new closures around Baghdad that severed long stretches of roads into the capital from the north, south and west — a reflection of the damage from a two-week guerrilla onslaught on U.S. supply lines.
Insurgent attacks and kidnappers’ roadblocks have forced the military to curtail supply convoys and are part of the reason commanders have boosted ground forces by more than 20,000 U.S. troops. The military has already been tied down since April 1 on fronts in southern and central Iraq in the worst violence since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Officials have said the violence threatens to hamstring U.S. reconstruction effort and drive up prices of civilian goods, dealing a blow to a delicate economic recovery in Iraq.
More than 1,500 foreign engineers and contractors have fled Iraq for fear of being abducted or killed, Iraqi Housing Minister Bayan Baqer said Sunday.
In Baghdad, two Iraqi civilians and one American soldier were killed in multiple attacks, the U.S. military said Sunday.
The U.S. soldier was killed Saturday morning when a roadside bomb exploded near a military convoy, the military said. The soldier was from Task Force Baghdad, which is made up mostly of troops from the 1st Cavalry Division.
The death brought to 90 the number of U.S. troops in violence killed since April 1. At least 687 U.S. servicemembers have died in Iraq since the war began in March 2003. Those figures don’t include the reports of Marine deaths in Husaybah.
Two Iraqi civilians were killed Friday and four wounded when rockets fired by insurgents fell short of a military camp and hit a civilian area in western Iraq, the military said.
Two U.S. civilian contractors and one soldier were wounded in that attack, the military added.
The fighting in the town of Husaybah, 240 miles west of Baghdad, began when insurgents ambushed Marines on Saturday, sparking a battle with hundreds of rebel gunmen.
Fighting continued Sunday in three neighborhoods of the city, which was sealed off by U.S. forces.
Five Marines were killed in the initial ambush and nine more were wounded, an embedded journalist from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. Military spokesmen in Baghdad had no information on the reported Marine deaths.
Ten Iraqis were killed and 30 wounded — a mixture of insurgent fighters and civilian bystanders, said Hamid al-Alousi, a doctor at the hospital in the nearby city of al-Qaim.
Some civilians were shot by Marine snipers as they stepped outside to use outdoor toilets behind their houses, the doctor told the Arab television station Al-Arabiyah.
Husaybah police director Imad al-Mahlawi was one of those killed by American snipers, according to a man who identified himself as al-Mahlawi’s cousin, Adel Ezzeddin, Al-Arabiya reported.
According to Marine intelligence, nearly 300 Iraqi mujahedeen fighters from the Fallujah and Ramadi areas, some 150 miles to the east, launched the offensive in an outpost next to Husaybah.
They first set off a roadside bomb to lure Marines out of their base, and then fired 24 mortars as the Marines responded to the first attack, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch correspondent reported.
Marines have been battling Sunni insurgents in a siege of Fallujah, 35 miles west of the capital, and guerrilla activity has surged in nearby Ramadi, where 12 Marines were killed in an ambush on April 6.
The military announced Sunday it closed off the main highway from Baghdad to the Jordanian border, the scene of heavy fighting at the western entrance to Baghdad as well as near Fallujah and Ramadi further down the road. For days, gunmen along the route have been attacking convoys and kidnapping foreigners — including an American soldier and civilian.
The military also shut down a stretch of the main highway north to Turkey, starting at the entrance to Baghdad extending to the town of Balad 42 miles north. Also closed was a 90-mile section of the main southern highway connecting Baghdad with Basra and Kuwait.
A military release said the closure was aimed at repairing the roads, but it warned civilians caught using the roads could be shot as enemy combatants.
Commanders suggested the routes remained vulnerable to attacks by insurgents who have been targeting U.S. military supply lines.
“We’ve got to fix those roads, we’ve also got to protect those roads,” Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt told reporters in Baghdad. Kimmitt said civilians would be redirected around the closed sections.
Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Baghdad Thursday that the need to defend supply lines for U.S. forces was “part of the calculations” U.S. commanders used when they called for troop reinforcements.
In other violence, two British soldiers were injured Saturday when their convoy came under fire in the southern town of Amarah, but their injuries were not life-threatening, the British defense ministry said Sunday.