U.S. and Iraq forces target rebels' haven


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- U.S. and Iraqi troops set up new positions over the weekend on the outskirts of Ramadi, a city in Al Anbar province that has become a haven for the Sunni Arab-led insurgency, in an effort to bottle up guerrillas who have largely controlled the city in recent months.

"We are focusing on multiple sites used by the insurgents to plan and conduct terrorist attacks and store weapons," Lt. Col. Bryan F. Salas, a Marine spokesman based in Fallujah, said yesterday. "We have also set up additional checkpoints to restrict the flow of insurgents, but citizens will still be able to enter and leave the city."

Salas said U.S. troops from one brigade and Iraqis from two brigades are taking part in the operation. A Marine brigade is usually composed of about 2,500 troops and is led by a colonel.

Military officials have for weeks played down the significance of combat preparations in the area, which included the arrival of 1,500 additional U.S. troops. Last week, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV said operations in Ramadi were increasing in order to clear away insurgents who were obstructing the development of local security forces, but he added that he did not foresee a "Fallujah-type" operation taking place there.

In 2004, the United States led two assaults on insurgents in Fallujah that were among the biggest battles since the beginning of the conflict in 2003.

The U.S. military also continued to search early today for two U.S. servicemen who were reportedly abducted by guerrillas after an attack on a checkpoint south of Baghdad. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshair Zebari told CNN's Late Edition yesterday that two U.S. soldiers who disappeared after an attack Friday on a U.S.-run checkpoint near Yousifiya, south of Baghdad, were abducted by a group of insurgents.

U.S. military officials have declined to confirm whether the soldiers were kidnapped and are listing the pair as "duty status unknown."

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government announced yesterday that it would release 300 prisoners from Abu Ghraib prison today, another in a series that began this month and will eventually free 2,500 people. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has called the move a token of reconciliation aimed at appeasing Sunni Arabs, who dominate the insurgency and are disproportionately incarcerated relative to their overall population. There are nearly 28,000 prison inmates in Iraq, according to government officials.

Iraq's parliament met yesterday and decided to create 25 oversight committees for various government ministries. The committees are intended to check corruption and limit the influence of political factionalism.

"The heads of the committees should be different from the ministries they are monitoring," said Abbas Bayati, a parliament member for the leading Shiite Muslim bloc. "For example, if the Shiite bloc has the Oil Ministry, then the head of the oil committee must not be from the Shiite bloc, in order to enhance the quality of the monitoring and be able to hold the ministry accountable for any misconduct."

In Baghdad, a car carrying four people exploded, killing three of the occupants. Police said they did not know the reason behind the explosion.

In Mosul, an ethnically mixed city in northwest Iraq, a car bomb detonated near a U.S. convoy, which rolled through the blast apparently unscathed. The explosion killed a high-school girl and wounded 19 other civilians, Iraqi police said.

In Baqubah, 25 miles north of Baghdad, insurgents fatally shot three Iranian men near the Diyala province travel office. A police source said that when they searched the bodies, they found Iranian national documents and forged Iraqi credentials. Police also said the men had U.S. and Iranian currency and a small video camera.

Solomon Moore writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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