British soldier dies while Iraqis launch Baghdad operation

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The Independent Online

A British soldier was killed and four others injured by a roadside bomb in southern Iraq as Iraqi forces launched the biggest security sweep in Baghdad since the removal of Saddam Hussein.

A British soldier was killed and four others injured by a roadside bomb in southern Iraq as Iraqi forces launched the biggest security sweep in Baghdad since the removal of Saddam Hussein.

The death, which brings the toll for British forces to 89, including one Fijian, happened when a device exploded next to the Army convoy and came on a day when at least 25 people were killed in suicide bombings and ambushes across the country.

The British soldiers were out on a routine expedition, headed for a meeting with Iraqi security services, when the three vehicles were attacked. The casualties were airlifted by helicopter to hospital while troops sealed off the area and began an investigation.

Lieutenant Karim Lueibi, an Iraqi policeman, said the roadside bomb hit the convoy near the town of Amarah, 90 miles north of the main British headquarters in Basra.

The soldier's death comes less than four weeks after the last fatality. Guardsman Anthony Wakefield, 24, who was with the 1st Battalion The Coldstream Guards serving alongside the Staffordshire Regiment, died on 2 May during a patrol of the same area. The guardsman, who was from Newcastle-upon-Tyne and had three children, was acting as top cover in the second of two vehicles when a roadside bomb went off.

Iraq's rural Maysan region - at the northern end of the British-controlled sector - has long been a flashpoint. It was in this area that six military police were killed at a police station in Majar al-Kabir in 2003 and last year it was the scene of fierce battles between UK troops and insurgents.

Earlier this month the MoD said that there had been a reduction in the level of attacks since the Iraqi elections in January, but the insurgents continued to pose a threat.

Michael Moore, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, said: "Our first thoughts are with the families of those who have been killed and injured.

"We all continue to admire how British servicemen and women carry out their duties with professionalism and courage in such difficult conditions."

Meanwhile at least 25 others, including a US Marine, died in attacks across the country as Iraqi forces began a major crackdown on insurgents in Baghdad.

A suicide attacker detonated a car bomb outside the heavily fortified Iraqi oil ministry killing two security guards, Assem Jihad, the ministry's spokesman, said. The militant tried to ram a Volkswagen sedan packed with explosives through the gate of the building in east Baghdad but it exploded 20 yards from the gate when guards shot at him.

Before dawn, insurgents attacked an Iraqi army checkpoint in Yousifiyah, 12 miles south-west of Baghdad, killing nine soldiers and injuring one. Gunmen also killed two police sergeants employed by the Iraqi cabinet in a drive-by shooting in Dora. Another two police commandos were killed and five injured in a car bomb blast at Madain about 14 miles south-east of Baghdad.

A suicide car bomber, apparently targeting a US convoy, exploded his vehicle and killed two Iraqis and injured nine others near the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in Tuz Khormato, south of Kirkuk. "With the escalating operations by security forces, we expect such reactions coming to the surface, but this will have no affect on the operations," Laith Kuba, a spokesman for the Iraqi Prime Minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, said.

At the same time, in the largest offensive of its kind, the first of more than 40,000 Iraqi soldiers and police - supported by US troops - put up checkpoints, raided homes and began searching vehicles in Baghdad. Operation Lightning was launched as a direct challenge to the wave of attacks that have killed more than 700 people since the announcement on 28 April of the Shia-led government. Its success or failure was said by some to be based on how long it would take for Iraqis to take control of their own security, a key part of the US exit strategy.

"We set up these checkpoints in order to arrest all those insurgents trying to destroy this country and we will hit them with an iron fist," said an Iraqi army sergeant, Ali al-Khazali, while manning a highway checkpoint in Dora.

Baghdad will be divided into two sectors, Karkh on the west bank of the Tigris river, and Risafa on the east. Karkh will be divided into 15 sub-districts and Risafa into seven. Police will operate 24 hours a day.

Earlier in the weekend Japan's foreign ministry said it believed that a hostage seized in Iraq was dead, after an Islamist militant group, the Army of Ansar al-Sunna, posted footage on the internet apparently showing his corpse. The ministry and Akihiko Saito's brother confirmed the video showed the body of the 44-year-old former paratrooper and veteran of the French Foreign Legion.

n Iran has denied a newspaper report that al-Qa'ida's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had fled there after being injured in a US missile attack.

Fatalities since 2003

American: 1,657

British: 89

Italian: 22

Ukrainian: 18

Polish: 17

Spanish: 11

Bulgarian: 10

Slovak: 3

Dutch, Estonian and Thai: 2

Latvian, Kazakh, Hungarian, Danish and Salvadoran: 1

Source: Iraq Coalition Casualty Count