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US, Iraqi Forces Step Up Attacks in Sunni Heartland - 2004-10-12


In Iraq, U.S. and Iraqi forces have stepped up their military operations in areas of the country under the control of Sunni rebels. Ahead of elections set for January, Iraqi and coalition forces are attempting to restore government control over as much of the country as possible.

American warplanes and attack helicopters have again struck at targets in several Iraqi cities, including in the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah, which has been a no-go area for coalition troops since U.S. Marines withdrew from the city under heavy combat in April. This time, the target was a restaurant.

In Baghdad, U.S. military spokesman Major Jay Antonelli would only describe the targets as known safe houses used by associates of accused Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

"These terrorists are known to use different safe houses as meeting places and our intelligence sources are confirming when the meeting is taking place and we are targeting those sites," he said.

In recent weeks, coalition air strikes are believed to have killed at least six top Zarqawi lieutenants. But in the process, witnesses say innocent civilians are also being killed as was the case Tuesday, as well as last Friday, when Fallujah residents say another air strike killed members of a wedding party.

"We can not confirm that there was a wedding that actually was at the Zarqawi strike," he added. "It was a successful strike. That was a planned target. We hit our target."

The Zarqawi network is blamed for multiple car bombings, kidnappings and beheadings of civilians since the fall of Baghdad more than a year ago. While causing unintended civilian casualties, U.S. military commanders believe the air strikes are also having the desired effect of getting tribal leaders in Fallujah to demand the expulsion of foreign fighters from the city. When Iraqi and coalition forces restored government control to Samarra several weeks ago, military sources say about one out of five fighters in the city were found to be non-Iraqi.

In addition to air strikes in Fallujah, another Sunni stronghold, Ramadi, is coming under renewed attack as well. Iraqi forces backed up by American soldiers and Marines raided seven mosques Tuesday which the U.S. military says were harboring terrorists and storing illegal weapons.

Coalition and Iraqi forces are going on the offensive to ensure that as much of the country as possible will be able to take part in January's elections. But some military commanders think it may be months longer before the country can be brought completely under government control.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld addressed the issue during an appearance before Congress last month.

"Let's say you tried to have an election and you could have it in three quarters or four fifths of the country but some places you couldn't because the violence was too great," said Mr. Rumsfeld. "Well, so be it. Nothing's perfect in life. Is it better than not having an election? You bet."

But Secretary of State Colin Powell told the U.S.-funded Al-Hurra satellite television Tuesday in order to have a full, free and fair vote, all areas of Iraq need to be under government control, and he says he sees no reason why that cannot be done.

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