BAGHDAD, June 17 (Reuters) - U.S. F-16 fighter planes dropped a series of 500 lb (220 kg) bombs on insurgent targets in western Iraq overnight as the U.S. military launched a heavy offensive against rebels near the Syrian border.
Nine of the powerful bombs were dropped, the U.S. military said, two of them targeting suspected rebel safe houses near the town of Qaim, an insurgent stronghold on the Euphrates river about 20 km (12 miles) east of Iraq's border with Syria.
Four more were aimed at rebels as they fired mortars and assault rifles at U.S. ground forces near Qaim, and a further three were used to hit suspected weapons caches in the area.
The air power was in support of Operation Spear, the third major offensive U.S. forces have launched in western Iraq in the past six weeks with the aim of crushing insurgent activity in the Euphrates valley which stretches northwest to Syria.
"Operation Spear ... began in the early morning hours with the objectives of rooting out insurgents and foreign fighters and disrupting insurgent support systems in and around Karabila," Captain Jeffrey Pool of the U.S. Marines said in a statement from Ramadi, capital of the surrounding Anbar region.
Iraqi troops and U.S. tank and amphibious assault units were involved, he added. About 1,000 troops were taking part in all.
Residents in Karabila, a suburb of Qaim where the suspected weapons caches were targeted, said fierce gunbattles broke out overnight and continued. U.S. forces said air strikes killed about 40 rebels near there on June 11.
The leader in Qaim of the Muslim Clerics Association, a leading voice for the once-dominant Sunni Arab minority, said he was calling for businesses to remain closed and residents to stay in their homes after weekly Friday prayers in protest at U.S. action he said was endangering civilians.
"The U.S. forces are escalating the situation and we will declare a general strike after Friday prayers," the Association's Mudhafar al-Ani said.
The chief doctor at Qaim hospital, Hamdi al-Alusi, said six bodies had been brought to the morgue on Friday, including one of a woman. The identities of the five men were unclear.
It was unclear how much resistance U.S. forces were meeting, but a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter made an "unscheduled landing" near Qusayba, 20 km (12 miles) west of Qaim, the military said. Pool said it was not shot down.
The western, desert regions of Iraq provide strongholds for Sunni insurgents battling U.S. forces and the new, Shi'ite-led government. Iraqi and U.S. officials say Arab foreign fighters have been entering from Syria, although Damascus rejects accusations of helping them do that.
It is also believed to be the main hideout of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant whose al Qaeda-linked group has carried out many of the deadliest attacks in Iraq and who U.S. forces believe is behind a recent surge in violence.
Since late April, more than 1,000 Iraqis and 120 U.S. troops have died in rebel attacks. That may help explain a declining approval rating for President George W. Bush at home. Two U.S. Marines were killed in a roadside bomb blast in fighting near Ramadi on Thursday, the U.S. military said on Friday.
A CBS/New York Times poll released on Thursday said 60 percent of Americans thought things were going badly for the United States in Iraq. Fifty-one percent now think Washington should have stayed out of Iraq.
In Baghdad, a suicide car bomber blew up his vehicle as an Iraqi security patrol was passing a Shi'ite mosque, wounding four people and causing a fuel truck to explode, police said.
Another car exploded near the convoy of an Iraqi general in Falluja, killing two civilians and wounding 11, officials said.
Tensions have been high between the minority Sunni Arabs, from where the insurgency draws support, and the dominant Shi'ite sect since the government was formed in late April.
Despite tensions, Sunni Arab and Shi'ite leaders managed to strike a compromise on Thursday over the makeup of a committee charged with drafting a new constitution, removing a barrier to drawing up the document before a mid-August deadline. (Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald, Luke Baker and Lutfi Abu-oun in Baghdad)
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