- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 30, 2005

BAGHDAD — U.S. and Iraqi troops launched an operation in western Iraq to clear insurgents from a suspected safe area used to make car and roadside bombs, the military said yesterday.

The campaign came as President Bush defended his Iraq policy in a major speech, saying more Iraqi security forces are increasingly taking the lead in battle, but that “this will take time and patience.”

About 1,500 U.S. Marines from the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, 500 U.S. Army soldiers and 500 Iraqi soldiers were taking part in Operation Iron Hammer near Hit, 85 miles west of Baghdad, the Marines said.

The forces would concentrate efforts in the Hai Al Becker region, where U.S. and Iraqi troops rarely patrol.

“The Hai Al Becker region is suspected to be an al Qaeda in Iraq safe area and base of operations for the manufacture of vehicle car bombs, roadside bombs,” the military said.

It added that the area is thought to be a stopping point for insurgents traveling down the Euphrates River from Syria into Iraq.

In the central town of Baqouba, unidentified gunmen opened fire on a minibus early yesterday, killing nine construction workers and wounding two, police said.

Following a new wave of kidnappings, in which five Westerners were abducted since the weekend, German Chancellor Angela Merkel vowed that her government will “not let ourselves be blackmailed” by those who took a German archaeologist hostage.

“The government is doing everything in its power to bring the German citizen and her driver as soon as possible to safety,” Mrs. Merkel said.

Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said yesterday Iran has no plans to hold talks with the United States on Iraq.

The diplomat, visiting the Turkish capital of Ankara, made his remarks after reports that Washington would seek Tehran’s cooperation to quell unrest in Iraq. Reports circulated that Washington would dispatch Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, on a mission to Tehran.

“Negotiations with the United States are not on our agenda,” Mr. Mottaki told a joint press conference in Ankara with Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul.

Joining the effort to help win freedom for the hostages, an influential Iraqi Sunni clerical group called yesterday for the release of the Western hostages, saying they should be freed on humanitarian grounds.

The Association of Muslim Scholars is thought to have contacts with some Sunni insurgent groups and has helped mediate the release of other captives in Iraq.

Kidnappers have threatened to kill Susanne Osthoff and her Iraqi driver, who were kidnapped Friday, unless Germany halts all contacts with the Iraqi government.

German TV station ARD showed images of what appeared to be Mrs. Osthoff and her driver blindfolded on the floor beside armed and masked militants.

The other four abducted Westerners were members of Christian Peacemaker Teams, a group that has had activists in Iraq since October 2002. The group listed those abducted as Tom Fox, 54, of Clear Brook, Va.; Norman Kember, 74, of London; and James Loney, 41, and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, of Canada.

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