Marines' offensive sweep targets insurgent cells

Mission gets under way as rebel attacks in area appear to be on rise again


FALLUJAH, Iraq - U.S. Marines began an offensive sweep yesterday through fertile farmland south of Fallujah in an attempt to disrupt suspected insurgent cells in the area. The offensive comes as insurgent attacks appear to be on the rise again in the city, once a stronghold for the guerrillas.

In the early morning hours, about 350 Marines from the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion and 100 Iraqi army soldiers rolled into the Zaidan area in armored vehicles. They approached from the eastern edge of the farming region, which lies immediately north of the Euphrates River, and slowly progressed westward. The area around Zaidan, 20 miles southeast of Fallujah, is laced with irrigation canals that make the terrain treacherous for military vehicles.

"It'll drive the insurgents away from us," Lt. Col. Dan Masur, commander of the battalion, said of the sweep. "Understandably, there's some fear down there. The Iraqis want to help, but they want to know you'll be down there to support them."

In Baghdad and cities in the south, the organization of Muqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric, pressed on with a campaign to collect 1 million signatures for a petition demanding the withdrawal of American-led troops. The drive began Friday, when clerics led by al-Sadr issued calls for the signatures at mosques in Kufa and Sadr City, both strongholds of the Sadr movement. Television images showed young men lining up in a mosque to sign a white sheet of paper.

Al-Sadr has wide appeal among impoverished Shiite young men, and his militia, the thousands-strong Mahdi Army, can be mobilized instantly at his call. In recent months, al-Sadr has been trying to elevate his image as an opposition political figure, denouncing the American presence and the Iraqi government. About two dozen of his followers sit in the National Assembly, which is charged with writing a new constitution by Aug. 15.

Iraqi officials continued to grapple yesterday with the fallout from the killing last week of the top Egyptian diplomat and attacks on the envoys from Bahrain and Pakistan. The Egyptian diplomat, Ihab al-Sharif, 51, was kidnapped and killed by the militant group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in an attempt to drive Muslim envoys from Iraq. Yesterday, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry demanded in a statement that the Iraqi government explain why it had suggested that al-Sharif might have been trying to meet with insurgents.

That suggestion was first made Tuesday by Laith Kubba, a spokesman for the Iraqi government. Kubba said at a news conference that it was odd that al-Sharif had been driving in western Baghdad alone at the time of his abduction, and that perhaps al-Sharif had been trying to meet with militants. Kubba repeated those comments Friday.

In its statement, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry asked whether the Iraqi government was trying to "avoid responsibility" by pinning blame on al-Sharif. Egypt has announced that it is temporarily shutting down its mission in Iraq, and Pakistan withdrew its ambassador, Muhammad Yunis Khan, after Khan narrowly escaped an ambush by gunmen last week. Khan is now in Amman, Jordan.

Those moves come as a blow to the Bush administration and the Iraqi government, which in late June began strongly urging Arab countries to send ambassadors to Iraq and to upgrade their diplomatic ties here. Egypt and Jordan had both agreed to do so, and al-Sharif had been expected to take the title of ambassador soon. Jordan has said it intends to upgrade its ties but wants assurance that its diplomats will be secure in Baghdad.

In western Baghdad, a police captain was gunned down on his way to work, the Associated Press reported. Iraqi officials also said yesterday that Ali Shakir, the head of Iraq's karate union, was kidnapped south of the capital Thursday afternoon. Shakir was on his way home when he was abducted in Latifiya, a town with a heavy guerrilla presence.

The action by the Marines here in the Fallujah area is the second phase of a sweep known as Operation Scimitar. The first phase began Thursday, when Marines carried out raids on 48 different sites in the Zaidan area, said Maj. Chris Medlin, the executive officer of the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, which is based in Okinawa, Japan. The raids were intended partly to capture a suspected midlevel insurgent operator, but that man slipped away.

The Marines declined to release details of Thursday's operation until yesterday, Medlin said, in hope that insurgents would think the offensive had ended after the initial raids and would return to the Zaidan area.

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