U.S. forces stepped up operations Tuesday across a wide swath of the Sunni insurgent strongholds northwest of the capital, pounding targets in two cities from the air and supporting Iraqi troops in raids on mosques suspected of harboring insurgents.
The increased military activity coincided with the approach of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and appeared intended to avoid a repeat of the upsurge in attacks that took place last year.
U.S. warplanes struck twice in insurgent-held Fallujah, destroying a popular restaurant and a house, which the U.S. command said were used by members of Iraq's most feared terrorist organization. At least five people were killed and two wounded, the city hospital said.
More airstrikes were reported in Hit, where a hospital received two bodies. U.S. officials had no immediate comment.
At least 15 people were reported killed in an attack on an Iraqi National Guard outpost near the Syrian border. Residents claimed an American plane fired on the compound, but the U.S. Marines said insurgents staged the attack.
A 12:01 a.m. blast flattened the Haj Hussein restaurant in Fallujah as well as nearby shops, residents said. The restaurant was closed, but two night guards were killed, said Dr. Ahmed Thaer of Fallujah General Hospital.
The U.S. military command in Baghdad did not mention the restaurant but said the target was used as a meeting place for the Tawhid and Jihad terror network, led by Jordanian-born extremist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
The second blast occurred at 4:02 a.m. and flattened a building in northeastern Fallujah that the military said was a known terrorist safe house. Intelligence sources confirmed that al-Zarqawi associates were using the building at the time of the strike, the military said.
At least three people were killed and two wounded in that blast, Thaer said.
Residents reported hearing more explosions Tuesday evening on the eastern side of the city.
Al-Zarqawi's network has claimed responsibility for numerous car bombings, kidnappings and beheadings of foreign hostages.
Tuesday's strikes were the first in four days. The Iraqi government has reported progress in negotiations to restore control over the city 40 miles west of Baghdad.
American warplanes and helicopters struck in two parts of Hit, killing two people and injuring five, the hospital said. Residents went to the town hall to demand local authorities negotiate a cease-fire.
The previous day, U.S. aircraft attacked a town mosque and set it on fire after insurgents hiding in the shrine opened fire on Marines, the U.S. military said. Sporadic clashes continued through the night, killing at least two Iraqis and wounding 15, according to Hit General Hospital.
The Iraqi National Guard outpost east of Qaim was attacked in the early hours of the morning. Residents said U.S. warplanes were in action over the area, but the U.S. Marines said there were no American operations there and insurgents staged the attack. Between 15 and 20 people were killed in the attack, according to Hamid Ahmed Ali, a city hospital official.
The Marines sent a team to the outpost to assess the situation and see whether any assistance was needed.
Also Tuesday, a Marine patrol took fire, but there were no American casualties, they said.