Some 5,000 U.S. Marines, British troops and Iraqi commandos launched raids and arrested suspected insurgents Tuesday in a new offensive aimed at clearing a swath of insurgent hotbeds south of Baghdad, the U.S. military said.
In other violence, masked gunmen assassinated a Sunni cleric north of Baghdad, the second such killing in as many days, and insurgents hit a U.S. convoy with a roadside bomb near the central Iraq city of Samarra, prompting the Americans to open fire, killing an Iraqi, hospital officials said.
The new offensive was the third large-scale military assault this month aimed at suppressing Iraq's persistent insurgency ahead of crucial elections set for Jan. 30.
The region of dusty, small towns south of the capital has become known as the "triangle of death" for the frequent attacks by car bombs, rockets, and small arms on U.S. and Iraqi forces there and for frequent ambushes on travelers.
The military said violence has surged in the area in recent weeks in an apparent attempt to divert attention away from the U.S. assault on Fallujah.
The joint operation kicked off with early morning raids in the town of Jabella, 50 miles south of Baghdad, netting 32 suspected insurgents, the U.S. military said in a statement. U.S. and Iraqi forces were conducting house-to-house searches and vehicle checkpoints.
In the past three weeks, Iraqi troops and Marines have detained nearly 250 insurgents, the statement said.
They have been aided by British forces from the 1st Battalion of the Black Watch Regiment, who were brought to the area from southern Basra to aid U.S. forces in closing off militant escape routes between Baghdad, Babil province to the south and Anbar province to the west.
The massive Fallujah invasion, involving some 10,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops, has left the former guerrilla stronghold mostly in U.S. hands, though fighting with pockets of gunmen has been going on for days, the military has said. More than 50 U.S. servicemembers were killed and more than 400 wounded in the operation.
Earlier this month, the northern city of Mosul witnessed a mass insurgent uprising in apparent support of Fallujah's guerrillas. Some 2,400 U.S. troops were sent in to retake control over western parts of the city.
The slain Sunni cleric, Sheik Ghalib Ali al-Zuhairi, was shot as he left a mosque in the town of Muqdadiyah, 60 miles north of Baghdad, said police Col. Raisan Hussein.
Al-Zuhairi was a member of the Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential group that has called for a boycott of nationwide elections.
A day earlier, gunmen assassinated another prominent Sunni cleric in the northern city of Mosul — Sheik Faidh Mohamed Amin al-Faidhi, who was the brother of the group's spokesman. It as unclear whether the two attacks were related.
Meanwhile, a top aide to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr accused the government of violating terms of the August agreement that ended an uprising by al-Sadr's followers in Najaf.
Ali Smeisim, al-Sadr's top political adviser, made no explicit threats as he leveled his allegations at a Baghdad news conference. But his remarks raised the possibility of a new confrontation between the government and al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, which rose up against the Americans and their Iraqi allies in April and August.
Smeisim said the government has broken a promise in the August agreement not to arrest members of al-Sadr's movement and to release most of them from detention.
"The government, however, started pursuing them and their numbers in prisons have doubled," Smeisim said. "Iraqi police arrested 160 al-Sadr loyalists in Najaf four days ago."
Smeisim also accused the government of conspiring with two major Shiite parties, Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, to marginalize al-Sadr's movement and prevent its clerics from speaking in mosques.
Trouble from al-Sadr's armed followers would further complicate the security situation ahead of the January vote.
The United States is eager for the election go ahead as planned, hoping that an elected government widely accepted by the Iraqi people will take the steam out of the insurgency still raging in Sunni areas of central, western and northern Iraq as well as the capital.
But a boycott by Sunni Arabs, who make up an estimated 20 percent of the nearly 26 million population, could deprive the new government of legitimacy. The majority Shiites, believed to form 60 percent of the population, strongly support elections.
Still, Iraq's interim prime minister expressed confidence Monday that the election will succeed. Ayad Allawi said he believed that only "a very small minority" would abstain during the election.
As the election approaches, U.S. commanders in Iraq probably will expand their troops by several thousand. Army units slated to depart are also being held back until after the election. There are now about 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
In Egypt, where 20 nations have gathered for an international conference on Iraq, members have committed themselves to supporting the U.S.-backed Iraqi interim government and its war against insurgents.
The gathering, which included many who had opposed the war, represented hard-won acknowledgment of the need for international cooperation to deal with its consequences.