BAGHDAD, Iraq - Eight U.S. marines were killed Saturday in the bloodiest attack on American forces in Iraq in almost seven months as troops prepared for a major assault to capture the rebel towns of Ramadi and Falluja.
Violence flared across Iraq ahead of the offensive, expected any day, and U.S. planes and artillery pounded Falluja in the country's central Sunni Muslim heartland.
At least seven people were killed by a suspected car bomb outside the Al Arabiya television office in Baghdad, the station reported, and seven Iraqis died in clashes with U.S. troops in an area dubbed the triangle of death southwest of the capital.
Iraqi youths gather around the wreckage of a car bomb after it went off as a U.S. military convoy was driving past, on a highway in the western city of Ramadi, October 29, 2004. U.S. marines prepared to storm the Iraqi cities of Falluja and Ramadi to crush Sunni Muslim insurgents and Arab fighters. (Ibrahim Naji/Reuters)
The U.S. military said the marines were killed in the restive western province of Anbar, which includes Falluja and Ramadi, but gave no details. Nine marines were also wounded.
Witnesses said earlier they had seen three U.S. vehicles burning on a road east of Falluja, in the same province. It was not clear if that was where the marine casualties occurred.
The deaths bring to 858 the number of U.S. troops killed in combat. The total number of U.S. troop deaths, including accidents and other causes, is now almost 1,120.
U.S. marine commanders said Friday they were preparing for a major assault on Falluja and Ramadi.
The aim is to crush guerrillas and root out Arab militants led by declared al Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to enable Iraq's interim government to hold national elections in January.
At least a dozen air strikes hit southeastern Falluja, witnesses said. U.S. marine spokesman Lieutenant Lyle Gilbert said marines on the edge of Falluja had come under mortar fire from insurgents and called in artillery support.
Gilbert called the action the "most consistent and drawn out artillery barrage in recent days," but did not mark the beginning of the long-anticipated U.S. offensive.
Marine commanders say they face a volatile mix of up to 2,000 Iraqi and foreign fighters entrenched in the city. Some are thought to be former army officers loyal to Saddam Hussein, others Islamist militants led by Zarqawi, a Jordanian.
Zarqawi, America's top enemy in Iraq, has claimed responsibility for some of the bloodiest violence in the country and the beheadings of foreign hostages.
In Baghdad, Al Arabiya said seven people were killed and 16 wounded in the blast outside its office, in an up-market neighborhood. Officials could not immediately confirm the toll.
Television footage showed doctors stitching the bloodied face of one woman as she writhed in agony. Other victims, their clothes bloody and torn, were carried into the crowded hospital amid chaotic scenes.
Najwa Qassem, senior Arabiya correspondent in Baghdad, said the blast had started a fire and damaged the building. She said a suspected car bomb had exploded in the parking lot but could not be sure the television station was the intended target.
The satellite channel is majority Saudi-owned. It has often been attacked on Web sites used by Islamist militant groups for its perceived pro-Western stance in the Arab world.
A few weeks ago, an Internet statement purporting to be from Zarqawi's group had threatened attacks against Al Arabiya.
Seven Iraqis were killed and 14 wounded in clashes between gunmen and U.S. troops southwest of Baghdad, when gunmen attacked U.S. soldiers raiding buildings.
Reuters Television footage showed two civilian cars and a truck riddled with bullets, their seats stained with blood.
Occupants said they had been caught in a crossfire. It was unclear how many of the casualties were gunmen and how many were civilians. Neither the U.S. nor the British military, which deployed in the area this week, had information on the incident.
The interim government and its U.S. backers are battling to restore peace to the country so Iraqis can elect a national assembly in January to draft a new constitution.
But some insurgent groups fighting to drive out U.S.-led forces are opposed to the polls. The election commission has received death threats signed by militants using the old name of Zarqawi's group.
Typewritten letters in the name of the Tawhid wal Jihad (One God and Holy War) Assassinations Squad warned members of the commission would be killed, along with their families, if they stayed at their posts, spokesman Farid Ayar said.
Militants have also kidnapped two more foreigners, a Somali truck driver and a Sudanese translator.
Confusion surrounds the fate of Japanese backpacker Shosei Koda, abducted while traveling by bus on holiday, after medical checks found a beheaded body discovered Friday was not his.
At least 25 foreigners from a dozen countries, including two women, are thought to be in the hands of kidnappers trying to drive U.S.-led forces and foreign workers from Iraq. Scores of foreigners have been abducted since April. Many have been freed but more than 35 have been killed, several of them beheaded.
Reporting by Michael Georgy near Falluja, Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Lin Noueihed in Baghdad, Sami al-Jumaili in Kerbala and Aref Mohammed in Kirkuk.
© Copyright 2004 Reuters Ltd