BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) — More than 3,000 U.S. and Iraqi forces
launched a major operation yesterday against insurgent strongholds
just south of Baghdad, their second mission in five days to wrest
control from militants whose attacks threaten national elections
seen as crucial to stabilizing this turbulent country.

The operation in the Babil province — an area notorious
for kidnappings and ambushes and home to the fabled, ancient city
of Babylon — follows last week’s U.S.-Iraqi drive to
oust insurgent forces from Samarra, about 60 miles north of
Baghdad.

The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit and Iraqi forces went into
action after a string of bombings set off clashes yesterday between
U.S. troops and gunmen west of Baghdad and in the northern city of
Mosul, and as the discovery of five beheaded bodies over two days
indicated the pace of such grisly killings was also surging.

The Marines and Iraqis punched their way across the Euphrates
River, rounded up 30 suspects, seized a suspected training camp and
took control of a major bridge, the U.S. command said. The bridge,
spanning the Euphrates, is believed to be a favored corridor
linking insurgent areas around Baghdad, Fallujah and towns farther
south.

The area in which they were operating was an estimated 40 to 45
miles northwest of ancient Babylon. The capital of Babil province
is Hillah, about 65 miles south of Baghdad. The provincial capital
sits near the Euphrates in a belt of rich agricultural land between
that river and the nearby Tigris.

Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said the tempo of attacks against
insurgent strongholds would increase but acknowledged that the
security challenge was a “source of worry.”

“I don’t want to deny the impact of security
situation nor minimize the size of the challenges we face,”
Allawi said during a speech yesterday in Baghdad. “I believe
that many of the Iraqi people agree with me that we should not let
terrorist forces decide our agenda.

“It’s true that the security situation in which the
country is living commands most of your attention and maybe your
questions too. It’s true that it is a source of worry to many
who are concerned about Iraq’s future. But it’s better
than surrendering to the evil forces or giving in to their
demands.”

As part of the campaign, Allawi’s government has been
negotiating with followers of renegade Shiite cleric Muqtada
al-Sadr to halt weeks of fighting with U.S. troops in the Baghdad
district Sadr City. During his speech, Allawi said the two sides
had reached the basis of a deal and talks were continuing.

However, clashes between al-Sadr’s militia and American
troops continued despite the talks. Residents of the Shiite
district reported hearing explosions last night.

U.S. troops also battled gunmen in an insurgent stronghold west
of Baghdad and in Mosul after a series of bombings. At least five
American soldiers were wounded — underscoring the role of
homemade explosives as the insurgent weapon of choice in a country
awash in military ordnance.

In Ramadi, about 70 miles west of Baghdad, American troops and
insurgents exchanged gunfire after a car bomb exploded, police
Capt. Nassir Hassan said. The U.S. military had no report of the
incident, but an Associated Press photographer saw two dead Iraqis
and four wounded at the scene.

Later, a roadside bomb detonated as a U.S. military convoy was
passing near the Grand Mosque in the eastern section of Ramadi,
wounding one soldier, said Marine spokesman 1st Lt. Lyle Gilbert.
He said seven Iraqis were wounded.

However, Diaa al-Haity at Ramadi General Hospital said four
Iraqis were killed and two wounded.

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