- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 24, 2004

BAGHDAD — About 5,000 U.S. Marines, British troops and Iraqi forces began an offensive yesterday aimed at clearing insurgents from a cluster of dusty, small towns south of Baghdad.

The Pentagon, meanwhile, announced that 66 of 77 mosques inspected by forces involved in a recent offensive in Fallujah had been used by enemy fighters as weapons caches or for attacks on U.S. troops.

The offensive south of Baghdad was the third large-scale military operation this month aimed at suppressing Iraq’s Sunni Muslim insurgency ahead of elections set for Jan. 30.

The assault aims to stem an increase of violence in an area that has been notorious for months as a danger zone. Car bombings, rocket attacks and ambushes have surged in recent weeks, and U.S. commanders say some of the attacks likely were staged by terrorists who escaped from Fallujah.

Violence continued elsewhere. Masked gunmen killed a Sunni cleric in the second such attack this week against a member of the influential Association of Muslim Scholars, which has called for a boycott of the national elections.

Attackers also 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. Mortar rounds aimed at a nearby U.S. military base injured two children.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said this month’s offensive in Fallujah had turned up large numbers of bomb factories as well as “torture rooms, including one that had a human-size wire cage and others with bloody handprints on the wall.”

During the past two weeks, “a single military unit found 191 weapons caches and 431 improvised explosive devices in one sector of Fallujah alone,” Mr. Rumsfeld said.

“And 66 of 77 mosques that have been inspected by Iraqi forces in Fallujah were being used to store weapons and to conduct their terror campaigns against the people of Fallujah and against coalition forces.”

Yesterday’s joint military operation kicked off with raids in the town of Jabella, 50 miles south of Baghdad, as Iraqi and American troops swarmed into the region known as the “triangle of death.”

At least 32 suspected insurgents were captured in the morning’s raids, the U.S. military said. In other joint raids conducted in Iskandariyah and Latifiyah, 45 more suspected insurgents were arrested, said Iraqi police Capt. Hadi Hatif.

Britain’s 1st Battalion of the Black Watch Regiment, which had been brought to the area from the southern city of Basra, closed off militant escape routes between Baghdad and Babil province to the south and Anbar province to the west.

“We believe some fighters from Fallujah skirted away and came down to our area to, among other reasons, take a little bit of pressure off of Fallujah,” said Capt. David Nevers, a spokesman for the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

In addition, Capt. Nevers said, “For the last couple months, we’ve gone into areas that had formerly not seen a lot of presence. … We went in and stirred up a few hornet nests.”

Attacks throughout central and northern Iraq increased sharply after the start of the Fallujah offensive, in which at least 54 U.S. troops were killed and 425 wounded. About 2,400 U.S. and Iraqi troops were sent to retake control in Mosul after a major rebel offensive.

Since the Fallujah offensive began Nov. 8, about 850 U.S. service members have been wounded throughout Iraq, bringing the total for the entire war to more than 9,000, the Pentagon said yesterday.

The cleric assassinated yesterday, Sheik Ghalib Ali al-Zuhairi, was killed as he left a mosque after dawn prayers in the town of Muqdadiyah, 60 miles north of Baghdad, police said.

His death came a day after another prominent Sunni cleric was killed in Mosul — Sheik Faidh Mohamed Amin al-Faidhi, who was the brother of the association’s spokesman. It was not clear whether the two attacks were related.

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