American troops prepare for assault on Sunni stronghold

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The Independent Online

American and Iraqi government forces have surrounded the city of Ramadi in preparation for an expected full-scale attack on the city, which has in effect slipped into the hands of insurgents.

American and Iraqi government forces have surrounded the city of Ramadi in preparation for an expected full-scale attack on the city, which has in effect slipped into the hands of insurgents.

The operation, with US Marines forming the main attack force, comes less than three months after the massive and controversial assault on Fallujah and follows a pledge by Washington to pacify the remaining rebel strongholds.

The people of Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad and adjacent to Fallujah, have been placed under a curfew during the operation, codenamed River Blitz. According to the US military, the operation is at the orders of the Iraqi interim authority and follows suicide bombings and other attacks on Shia Muslims marking the festival of Ashura. At least 50 people were killed in two days. The US and the Iraqi interim government have blamed the blasts on the Sunni resistance and in particular the group led by the Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Meanwhile, al-Jazeera television aired a videotape yesterday purporting to show al-Qaida's deputy chief, Ayman al-Zawahri, denouncing US calls for reform in the region and urging the West to respect the Islamic world. He said in the video tape that "reform is based on American detention camps like Bagram, Kandahar, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib".

As American soldiers massed around Ramadi, reports emerged from the US that diplomats and intelligence officers have been conducting secret talks with insurgents on ways to end the rebellion. Time magazine reported the clandestine negotiations, citing Pentagon and other sources.

Maj-Gen Richard Natonski, commander of the 1st Marine Division, said the Ramadi operation was necessary to protect ordinary Sunnis. "Operation River Blitz is designed to target insurgents and terrorists who have attempted to destabilise the Anbar province. We were asked by the Iraqi government to increase our security operations in the city to locate, isolate and defeat anti-Iraqi forces and terrorists," he said.

Maj-Gen Natonski described the militants in Ramadi as "intent on preventing a peaceful [post-election] transition of power between the interim Iraqi government and the Iraqi transitional government". As well as putting a security cordon around the city, the operation will involve more intense patrols of towns and cities along the Euphrates, which flows through the city.

Tribal leaders from the Sunni Arab minority were scrambling yesterday to demand a say in that new government. "We made a big mistake when we didn't vote," said Sheikh Hathal Younis Yahiya, 49, a representative for northern Nineveh.

Shias too are less than happy with the direction talks to form a government are taking. "The people of Iraq do not want to be separate," said Sheikh Jewad al-Khalasy, a Shia cleric who runs a religious college in Khadmiya, a north Baghdad neighbourhood. The Karbala resident Abdel Amir Mohamed said: "We just want our marjaiya [religious authorities] to be safe."

Only 2 per cent of voters in Anbar province took part in the polls. Ramadi, with 300,000 residents, has long been a focal point for the Iraqi resistance.

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