Mideast edition, Tuesday, July 17, 2007

American and Iraqi troops south of Baghdad have launched another large-scale operation to try to keep weapons and militants out of the capital, the U.S. military said Monday.

Operation Marne Avalanche is focused on “enemy sanctuaries” in Jurf as Sakhir and an area known as the Fish Farms, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division — which is in charge of the area south of Baghdad — said Monday.

Both areas are near Iskandariyah, about 35 miles south of Baghdad, and the operation is being led by the 4th Brigade, 25th Infantry Division.

In all, some 5,000 U.S. and 3,500 Iraqi troops are involved in Marne Avalanche.

The new offensive follows closely on Operation Marne Torch, which kicked off in the middle of June. Marne Torch has focused on Arab Jabour and Salman Pac. So far in that operation, American troops have reported killing more than 80 suspected insurgents and arresting nearly 300 others.

More than 50 weapons caches have been found and 51 boats alleged to be used for insurgent activities have been destroyed.

In addition, in a move that began in Anbar province but is spreading out to other areas in Iraq, the U.S. troops have “entered” 872 Iraqis in a biometric identification system that includes photos, fingerprints and retinal scans.

Division commanders have said the southern belts of Baghdad are “enemy sanctuaries, places where the enemy was storing munitions, conducting training, building [bombs] and using those for attacks against the Iraqi people and American soldiers.”

In February, city officials in Jurf as Sakhir met for the first time in three months and “appealed for help in reclaiming their city from insurgents,” U.S. military officials said at the time.

The last time they tried to meet before that, in December, insurgents detonated a bomb in the courtyard of the council building, killing the groundskeeper.

Among the appeals were for new and upgraded security checkpoints and the return of paid teachers in the area.

Jurf as Sakhir has been caught in a seesaw battle between insurgents, Iraqi forces and American troops stationed nearby. In September, the U.S. military helped rebuild an Iraqi police station that had been destroyed by suicide bombers — and rebuilt by Iraqis and Americans — twice before.

But just days after completion of the third renovation, another bomber struck, seriously damaging the structure, killing two Iraqi police and wounding eight American troops.

The area is one of the most politically and tactically complicated in Iraq, military officials have said: It straddles the Shiite-Sunni fault line south of Baghdad.

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