Some 5,000 U.S. Marines, British troops and Iraqi commandos launched a new offensive Tuesday aimed at clearing a swath of insurgent hotbeds south of Baghdad, the U.S. military said.
The joint operation kicked off with early morning raids in the town of Jabella in Babil province, netting 32 suspected insurgents, the U.S. military said in a statement. Jabella is 50 miles south of Baghdad.
CBS News Correspondent Kimberly Dozier reports the military offensive is targeting the so-called Sunni "Triangle of Death" which includes the cities of Latifiyah and Mahmudiya, where several Iraqi National Guards have been executed in recent days.
Insurgent violence has increased in the areas south of the capital in "an apparent attempt to divert attention" away from the U.S-led assault on the militant stronghold of Fallujah, the military said.
In other developments:
The remarks raised the possibility of a new confrontation between the government and al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, which rose up against the Americans and their Iraqi allies in April and August.
The cluster of dusty, small towns located south of the capital, has been a major area for insurgent activity. U.S. and Iraqi forces have come under repeated attacks by car bombs, rockets, and small arms fire in the area.
The region has become known as a "triangle of death" for the numerous attacks by Sunni Muslim insurgents and criminal gangs on Shiites, Westerners and members of the Iraqi security services.
In the past three weeks, Iraqi troops and Marines have detained nearly 250 insurgents in the area, the statement said.
They have been aided by British forces from the 1st Battalion of the Black Watch Regiment, who were brought into the area from southern Basra to aid American forces in closing off militant escape routes between Baghdad, Babil province to the south and Anbar province to the west.
It would be the third major military offensive against insurgents since the massive Fallujah operation, which has claimed the lives of more than 50 U.S. soldiers and injured more than 400.
Earlier this month, the northern city of Mosul witnessed a mass insurgent uprising in apparent support of Fallujah's guerrillas. Some 2,400 U.S. troops were sent in to retake control over western parts of the city.
On Tuesday, masked gunmen assassinated a Sunni cleric north of Baghdad — the second such killing in as many days. Insurgents hit a U.S. convoy with a roadside bomb near the central Iraq city of Samarra, drawing return fire that killed one man.
Sheik Ghalib Ali al-Zuhairi was a member of the Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential Sunni clerics group that has called for a boycott of nationwide elections scheduled for Jan. 30.
He was shot as he was leaving a mosque in the town of Muqdadiyah and died in the local hospital, said police Col. Raisan Hussein. Muqdadiyah is about 60 miles north of Baghdad.
A day earlier, unknown gunmen assassinated another prominent Sunni cleric in the northern city of Mosul — Sheik Faidh Mohamed Amin al-Faidhi, who was the brother of the group's spokesman. It was unclear whether the two attacks were related.
The U.S. military had no immediate comment on whether there were any American casualties in the attack in Samarra, north of Baghdad. Hospital officials there said the bomb exploded off a road connecting Samarra and nearby Duluiya and U.S. troops returned fire, killing one man.
In the same town, mortar rounds slammed into a residential neighborhood near a U.S. military base on Tuesday, wounding two youngsters, said Police Maj. Saadoun Ahmed Matroud.
The violence in Iraq has spread despite this month's Fallujah offensive, which was aimed at bringing stability ahead of January's national elections.
On Monday the U.S. Embassy said a bomb was discovered on a commercial flight inside Iraq. No further details were released and the statement did not say whether the affected flight had arrived or was preparing to depart. Aircraft flying into and out of Baghdad have been fired on frequently by insurgents.
Militant Sunni clerics have called on Iraqis to boycott the Jan. 30 elections, angered by the Fallujah action and last week's U.S.-Iraqi raid on a Baghdad mosque, which left three dead and about 40 others arrested.
Still, Iraq's interim prime minister expressed confidence Monday that most Iraqis would participate in the election.
"The forces of darkness and terrorism will not benefit from this democratic experience and will fight it," Ayad Allawi told The Associated Press. "But we are determined that this experiment succeeds."
Allawi, a secular Shiite hand-picked by the Americans last June, said he believed that only "a very small minority" would abstain during the election "for one reason or another."
He is expected to run for a seat in the assembly, which would then choose the government.
The United States is anxious that the election go ahead as planned, hoping that an elected government widely accepted by the Iraqi people will take the steam out of the insurgency still raging in Sunni areas of central, western and northern Iraq as well as the capital.
As the election approaches, U.S. commanders in Iraq probably will expand their troops by several thousand. Army units slated to depart are also being held back until after the election. There are now about 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.