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On The Scene

Arraf: Marines rescue tortured hostages as battle rages

Troops fight insurgents in Iraq's 'Wild West'

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CNN's Jane Arraf

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Jane Arraf

KARABILA, Iraq (CNN) -- The joint U.S.-Iraqi Operation Spear continued Saturday as Marines, sailors and Iraqi security forces fought insurgents in Karabila, near the Syrian border. The most intense fighting was concentrated in the center of town, where enemy fighters were holed up in a bunker complex.

Marines also found four people who appeared to have been taken captive and beaten.

Jane Arraf, CNN's senior Baghdad correspondent, is embedded with U.S. troops taking part in the mission. She spoke with CNN anchor Betty Nguyen by phone during the pitched battle.

ARRAF: What I see in front of me is absolutely heartbreaking. It's two of four hostages who are being taken away, rescued. They were rescued this morning. They're Iraqi, and they were found in this complex that Marines first thought was a car-bomb factory. In fact, they did find what they believe was a potential car bomb or suicide car bomb.

But inside this complex, they found something even more sinister -- four Iraqis who were handcuffed, their hands and feet bound with steel cuffs. They're now being taken away for medical treatment, one being borne away on a stretcher.

The man in intense pain that they're trying to get into a vehicle, has been tortured, he says, and has all the marks of being tortured with electricity. His back is crisscrossed with welts. The other man is even ... in worse shape. Their crime was to be part of the border police.

The Marines came in here this morning, rescued them. The battle is still raging around us. I don't know if you can hear the gunfire, but this is a major offensive to get rid of insurgents and foreign fighters in this city near the Syrian border....

... Two young men say they don't know why they were seized. They say they didn't hear the voices of their captors, only people whispering in their ear that they were going to be killed.

But we have just watched the two who were most badly treated be carried out of here for medical equipment, one of them on a stretcher, an older man who worked for the border police, along with his colleague. ... the Marines showed us the room where he says he was hung by his feet, his head dipped in water and then tortured with electric shocks repeatedly.

One of the other men, the other border police, was too weak, really, to tell us what had happened. But he obviously was in very, very bad shape.

They were rescued this morning as Marines and Iraqi forces came into this complex, which included an underground bunker, weapons stockpiles and other things, and found them here. Their captors have fled.

NGUYEN: That is just heartbreaking, Jane. And we can hear the fighting around you. Have [coalition forces] captured those who took them hostage?

ARRAF: The insurgents who had presumably held them hostage had fled. And this is what they're finding as they come into cities like this. They've so far killed perhaps about 40 insurgents or foreign fighters. But there are many more out there, as you can hear from the sounds of gunfire and the explosions.

And they move. They have the ability to move very quickly. They have the ability to blend into the population.

The Marines are here with a few Iraqi armed forces who are helping, but they don't have a lot of people here. And one of the strengths of this ever-evolving insurgency is that they move from city to city, from neighborhood to neighborhood.

NGUYEN: We can hear the gunfire in the background. Is this mission going house to house? Are we looking at house-to-house combat here?

ARRAF: In some cases. What they were initially doing was going into a part of the city and essentially finding out where the insurgents might be. Now it's apparent where a lot of the insurgents are because they're shooting at the Marines.

As we were in this building where the hostages were being held, we were taking incoming mortar fire from around here.

They're not at the point where they're doing house-to-house searches because that's something that you do when it's safe enough to do that, and it's not nearly safe enough to do that. They are going into areas where they know or believe insurgents or foreign fighters are holed up. They're dropping bombs on them. They're using all of their weapons and then they're going in after that to clear those streets.

NGUYEN: Jane, you mentioned the discovery of a car-bomb factory. What else has the military found there?

ARRAF: They found quite a lot of weapons. This is thought to be an area where foreign fighters have really taken hold. They still come from the Syrian border, which is just five miles away. And there were thought to originally be at least 100 of them here. ...

We were in a school, a girls' school just next to the place we are now, and there were weapons stockpiled there, land mines. ... But on the blackboard, somewhere where schoolgirls would normally be learning their ABCs, there was a diagram for a relay system for homemade bombs.

This is an area of town where insurgents really do appear to have taken over and they have left evidence of it, even though in many cases, it seems, they themselves have fled.

NGUYEN: And when we talk about these captors and the insurgents in this fight that is going on right now -- we can hear it in the background there -- with the U.S. Marines, these foreign fighters, is there some fear that they may have already crossed into the Syrian border?

ARRAF: It is very close to Syria and it's believed there are still what they consider "rat lines," which are ways that they come across through the Syrian border. They are not saying that the Syrian government is responsible. Some military officials are saying clearly the Syrian government could perhaps be doing a better job.

But it's a very porous border and we have to understand that this is a part of the country that is not Baghdad, it's not Basra, it's not a cosmopolitan city. It is the Wild West, in a sense, of Iraq.

This particular territory, western Anbar province, is 30,000 square miles. That is the territory that the Marine unit here is responsible for. It's relatively easy for foreign fighters or anyone else to slip through that border and to blend in, in some sense, to cities and towns like this. There's no police force. There's no Iraqi Army.

I'm looking out around me and I see a deserted city -- some of the buildings bombed, smoke still rising from them. Civilians, many of them left a long time ago. The rest are afraid to come out, just the same way they were afraid to come out or say anything when the insurgents came into their towns.

This is the kind of fight that the Marines are fighting here and it is very, very difficult.

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