Fighters remain in bombed Iraqi border town near Syria, preparing for battle

American warplanes roared over desert villages and plumes of smoke rose into the sky near Syria on Friday as more than 1,000 U.S. forces hunted down followers of Iraq’s most-wanted terrorist. But fighters controlled the rubble-strewn streets of this border town.

American forces have met little resistance since the first two days of Operation Matador, aimed at clearing a region believed to be a haven for foreign fighters slipping over the border from Syria, the military said. American intelligence indicates the insurgents are either in hiding or have fled the region, U.S. Capt. Jeffrey Pool said in the statement.

But in the bomb-blasted streets of Qaim, where the offensive began Saturday, fighters armed with machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades roamed the streets, checking vehicles as they entered and left the town.

“We are trying to protect our city’s entrances, and we will prevent the U.S. forces from entering the city,” said one fighter, his face covered with a scarf.

The U.S. offensive – one of the largest since militants were forced from Fallujah six months ago – comes amid a surge of insurgent attacks that have killed at least 430 people in just over two weeks since Iraq’s first democratically elected government was announced. Many of the attacks have been claimed by the group “al-Qaida in Iran,” run by the country’s most wanted militant, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The new interim prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, extended Iraq’s state of emergency for another 30 days Friday, effective from May 3.

The emergency decree, which covers all of Iraq except the northern Kurdish-run areas, has been renewed monthly since it was first imposed Nov. 7 – hours before U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a major offensive against insurgents in Fallujah. It includes a nighttime curfew and gives the government extra power to make arrests without warrants and launch police and military operations.

Violence continued Friday as snipers opened fired on the motorcade of the Interior Ministry’s undersecretary, Maj.-Gen. Hikmat Moussa Hussein, in western Baghdad, killing one of his guards and wounding three others, police Maj. Moussa Abdul Karim said. Hussein escaped unharmed.

Elsewhere in western Baghdad, a 30-minute gun battle erupted when insurgents fired on an Iraqi police patrol, killing one officer and wounding three others.

Three roadside bombs also exploded in Baghdad on Friday, all of them targeting American patrols. There were no immediate reports of casualties, but Associated Press Television News footage showed a U.S. Humvee, its hood open, consumed by flames at the scene of one blast on the highway to the airport.

North of the capital, a car bomb exploded as an Iraqi army patrol was moving through Baqouba, killing three people and wounding six. The dead included two soldiers and a civilian.

In Hillah, about 95 kilometres south of Baghdad, mortars slammed into an Iraqi army checkpoint, killing three soldiers and wounding three.

At the Pentagon, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated Thursday that the insurgency could last for years.

“This requires patience,” he told a news conference. “This is a thinking and adapting adversary. . . . I wouldn’t look for results tomorrow.”

Near the Syrian border, residents reached by telephone in Saadah, Karabilah and Rommana said American forces were periodically shelling their villages. The U.S. military confirmed two air strikes Friday, one in a cave and the other in a village west of Saadah. The region is about 320 kilometres northwest of Baghdad.

On Thursday, U.S. fighter jets flattened a suspected insurgent safe house in Karabilah. The U.S. military said information gained from a “senior terrorist” captured during the operation led marines to the building, from which they started taking fire from at least four gunmen. U.S. F-18 Super Hornet jets destroyed the building with a combination of bombs and rockets, the military said in a statement.

Gunmen were taking over the homes of Iraqi citizens to evade Marines in the area, the U.S. military said Friday.

It said Friday it was receiving intelligence from local residents, fed up with the presence of foreign fighters in the region. But residents of a government-run housing complex on the outskirts of Obeidi, which saw some of the fiercest fighting in the first days of the offensive, insisted there were no foreigners among the fighters – only Iraqi tribesmen protecting their homes against U.S. forces.

The hospital in Obeidi said 16 bodies have been brought to its morgue and some 30 people have been treated so far. Most of the casualties were brought in from Karabilah and nearby Rommana.

Iraqi resistance fighters on the streets of Qaim yesterday