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Marines crack down on insurgents

A car's windscreen is shattered by shots fired by foreign security forces, resulting in a woman's death in Baghdad. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
A car's windscreen is shattered by shots fired by foreign security forces, resulting in a woman's death in Baghdad. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Liz Sly Chicago Tribune

BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. Marines launched a crackdown Sunday in the notoriously turbulent town of Ramadi, setting up checkpoints and clamping a curfew on the festering insurgent stronghold that has defied U.S. attempts to tame it.

Operation River Blitz aims to “enhance” security in and around the town, about 70 miles west of Baghdad, to pave the way for a peaceful transition of power to the new Iraqi government, a U.S. Marines statement said.

The crackdown came after insurgents had killed more than 80 people in and around Baghdad, most of them Shiites, in a two-day blitz of suicide attacks aimed at disrupting the annual Shiite Ashoura rites, though the operation appeared to be unrelated to the attacks.

Ramadi is west of the former rebel stronghold of Fallujah in the largely desert province of Anbar, whose tightly knit, fiercely independent Sunni tribes have resisted the presence of U.S. forces from the outset.

Although some insurgents who fled the Marine onslaught against Fallujah in November took refuge in Ramadi, the insurgency there remains mostly homegrown, military officials say.

“The extremists from Fallujah are not taking hold in Ramadi. The insurgency is Ramadi seems to be more criminal in nature,” said Capt. Bradley Gordon, spokesman for the 1st Marine Division in Anbar.

The operation will focus on setting up checkpoints on roads into the city to screen vehicles. An 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew is in effect, the military said.

Ramadi lies on the main highway linking Baghdad to the Jordanian border, and insurgents routinely set up checkpoints in the area. The latest foreigners to disappear on the road are two Indonesian journalists who went missing near Ramadi on Tuesday, apparently after they tried to make the perilous overland journey from Jordan to Baghdad. The Arab TV network Al-Jazeera later aired a videotape showing the two journalists and asking Indonesia to clarify the nation’s role in Iraq.

Anbar had the lowest voter turnout in the recent election, with only 2 percent of the province’s voters braving the threat of insurgent violence to cast ballots.

The absence of Sunnis from the polls has left the once ruling minority with little representation in Iraq’s new National Assembly, a source of concern as sectarian tensions rise between the Sunni minority and the majority Shiites, whose leaders won the largest share of the vote.

On Sunday, Sunni tribal leaders met in Baghdad to discuss ways in which they might contribute to the constitution writing process.

Also Sunday, Iraq’s interim government announced the capture or killing of insurgent leaders.

Sami Fathi Ali Saleh, “a senior al Qaeda terrorist cell leader” who led an 80-strong terrorist cell, was captured during a raid near the northern town of Mosul on Feb. 1, the Iraqi government said.

In a separate operation in Baghdad on Feb. 11, security forces killed a man called Adel Mujtaba, or Abu Rim, identified as leading propagandist in the network of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born militant allied to al Qaeda, according to a statement by the interim Iraqi government. Mujtaba was said to be responsible for posting videos depicting the torture of hostages on militant Web sites.

The government did not explain why the operations were not reported until now.

U.S. and Iraqi forces have been claiming considerable successes in killing or capturing insurgents in recent weeks, although the top leaders remain elusive.

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