BAGHDAD, Iraq – About 600 U.S. Marines and Iraqi soldiers have launched a fourth offensive against insurgents in less than a month in a volatile western province in Iraq, the military said Saturday.
Operation Scimitar started Thursday with targeted raids in the village of Zaidan, 20 miles southeast of Fallujah. So far, 22 suspected insurgents had been detained. Fallujah was a major insurgent bastion until U.S. forces overran the city in November.
A U.S. Air Force Predator also conducted a strike Friday against militants near Qaim, an Anbar province town on the Syrian border, the military said. The Predator fired a Hellfire missile at a truck carrying rocket-propelled grenades and suspected insurgents.
Two insurgents were killed, said Marine 1st Lt. Pamela Marshall, a spokeswoman.
The military said it did not announce the Operation Scimitar earlier because commanders did not want to tip off insurgents. The campaign — named after a curved Asian sword — includes 500 Marines from the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, Regimental Combat Team-8, stationed in Okinawa, Japan, the military said.
About 100 Iraqi soldiers were supporting the operation, which was designed to disrupt insurgent activity in the Anbar province, which stretches from Baghdad to the Syrian border and holds a number of insurgent strongholds. Fallujah is 40 miles west of the capital.
The latest counterinsurgency offensive in the province came on the heels of Operations Spear, Dagger and Sword.
The heaviest fighting occurred during Operation Spear in mid-June in Karabilah, near the porous Syrian border, which intelligence officials believe is the main gateway for foreign fighters entering Iraq.
The military said it killed about 50 insurgents in airstrikes, tank shelling and gunbattles during Operation Spear. Sections of Karabilah were left in rubble.
Separately, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has issued a religious decree to collect 1 million signatures for a petition demanding U.S.-led foreign troops leave the country. Dozens of people, including young boys, signed the petition in the Sadr City slum in eastern Baghdad on Saturday.
Al-Sadr, who opposes the foreign presence in Iraq, recently has taken on a higher public profile after emerging from months of hiding following clashes last year between U.S. troops and his militiamen.
The head of Iraq’s karate union also has been kidnapped south of Baghdad, sports officials said Saturday. Ali Shakir was abducted Thursday afternoon in Latifiyah, about 20 miles south of Baghdad, while on his way home, said Ahmed Hashim, an Iraq Olympic committee official.
It was not clear why Shakir was taken, but insurgents have frequently targeted members of the U.S.-backed Iraqi government. The Iraqi Union of Karate is a government agency.
Elsewhere Saturday, gunmen in three cars killed police Capt. Saad Mihsin Abdul Sadah in Amiriyah, 25 miles west of Baghdad. He was on his way to work at the Interior Ministry, police said.
The insurgency frequently targets Iraq’s security forces, but has started focusing on attacking foreign diplomats in recent days as part of a new trend apparently aimed at isolating the country from the Arab world.
A roadside bomb hit an American convoy in the central city of Samarra, damaging one Humvee, police Capt. Laith Mohammed said. No casualties were reported. A separate mortar attack in downtown Samarra wounded three women, he said.
At the G-8 summit in Scotland Friday, Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi said his government would begin withdrawing about 300 troops from Iraq in September — subject to security conditions at the time.
The moves came as violent incidents in the Iraqi capital are declining since Iraq’s U.S.-backed forces launched an operation against insurgents in the city six weeks ago.
The commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. William G. Webster Jr., said car bombings had dropped from 14 to 21 a week in May to about seven or eight a week now. But he said it was “very difficult to know” whether the insurgency has been broken.
Iraqi officials have become concerned about a possible exodus of diplomats from Baghdad after a Web site claim Thursday by al-Qaida in Iraq that it had killed Egypt’s top envoy after kidnapping him. The claim could not be independently verified.
Egyptian and Iraqi officials said Egypt would temporarily close its mission in Iraq and recall its staff — although Ihab al-Sherif’s body has not been found and the Web statement contained no photographic evidence of his death.
Pakistan’s Ambassador Mohammed Younis Khan left the country Wednesday after his convoy was fired on in a kidnap attempt. Bahrain’s top envoy, Hassan Malallah al-Ansari, was expected to leave soon after he was slightly wounded in a separate attempt.
In its Web statement, the country’s most feared terror group said it wanted to seize “as many ambassadors as we can” to punish governments that support Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government.
Sunni Arabs, who dominated Iraq until fellow Sunni
Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003, boycotted January elections and are believed to make up the core of an insurgency that has killed more than 1,475 people since the Shiite- and Kurdish-led government took office on April 28.