- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 22, 2005

BAGHDAD — Seven Iraqi battalions — backed by U.S. forces — staged an offensive in the capital yesterday in an effort to stanch the violence that has killed more than 550 people in less than a month.

Aides to a radical anti-American Shi’ite cleric, meanwhile, sought to defuse tension between Sunnis and the majority Shi’ites after a recent series of sectarian killings.

Iraq’s government also went on the diplomatic offensive, joining the United States in its oft-repeated demands that Syria close its porous border to foreign fighters.

Iraqi authorities announced that Ghazi Hammud al-Obeidi, 65, who had been one of the most-wanted officials from Saddam Hussein’s former regime, was released last month apparently because he was terminally ill with stomach cancer.

Al-Obeidi had been regional chairman of the ruling Ba’ath Party in the southeastern city of Kut. He was detained May 7, 2003, and released April 28, making him the first of the 55 most-wanted Iraqis to be freed. He was No. 51 on the most-wanted list.

The U.S. military said the offensive in the west of the capital had been set in motion to root out insurgents, especially those who have staged bloody assaults on the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison and the notoriously dangerous road from downtown to the airport.

Without providing numbers of troops, U.S. officials said four battalions of Iraqi soldiers and three battalions of police conducted the offensive with the support of an unspecified number of American military personnel, although a total of about 2,500 personnel were thought to have been involved.

“They are searching for gunmen and weapons believed to be used to target airport road and Abu Ghraib prison, which has come under regular mortar fire,” said police Lt. Akram al-Zubaie.

Suspects were detained, but the military gave no numbers.

Also yesterday, three Romanian journalists and their Iraqi-American guide were released after being held captive for nearly two months. Iraqi terrorists had demanded that Romania withdraw its soldiers from Iraq. Bucharest rejected the demand.

Senior aides of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr met a Sunni group in a bid to soothe tensions that have flared and resulted in the death of 10 Shi’ite and Sunni clerics in the past two weeks.

“There is a wound that needs to be treated, and Muqtada was the first to offer his medicine,” said Sheik Abdul Salam al-Kubaisi, spokesman for the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars after the talks with the al-Sadr delegation.

The association’s leader, Harith al-Dhari, last week blamed the killing of several Sunnis, including clerics, on the Badr Brigades, the military wing of Iraq’s largest Shi’ite party, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Brigade General Secretary Hadi al-Amri has denied the charge and accused the Sunni association of wanting to “push Iraq into a sectarian conflict.”

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