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23/11/04 Britain joins major new pre-election offensive against Iraq rebels

BAGHDAD (AFP) – British troops joined their US and Iraqi counterparts in a massive new offensive against insurgent strongholds as efforts intensified to restore government control in time for January polls.

The launch of the huge operation in the so-called Triangle of Death just south of Baghdad came as the international community threw its weight behind the tight timetable for Iraq's first post-Saddam Hussein elections.

US marines and a so-called Iraqi SWAT team swept through the village of Jabella just north of the city of Hilla to kick off the fresh offensive to restore control in the northern part of Babil province, the US military said.

The operation, dubbed Plymouth Rock, involved more than 5,000 Iraqi, US and British troops.

Rebels based in a string of Sunni Arab towns immediately south of the capital that command the main highway to the Shiite south have launched repeated attacks against convoys and travellers around the surrounding area.

The operation came hot on the heels of a massive assault on the city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad — the largest since last year's invasion.

The city had been under insurgent control since April and its recapture was seen as essential to organizing the promised polls.

“As the Iraqi people prepare to vote in nationwide elections in January, multinational forces are determined to capture or kill those who desire to destabilize the elections process,” the military said.

Most of Fallujah's 300,000 inhabitants had fled the city before the assault began on November 8, but as a few rebel pockets were still to be brought under control Tuesday, humanitarian needs inside the city remained unknown.

A team from the Iraqi Red Crescent Society entered Fallujah on Monday, but no real assessment has been made of the humanitarian situation since US and Iraqi government troops stormed the city on November 8, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

US commanders had hoped the Fallujah operation would lead to the capture of Iraq's most wanted man, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but the suspected Al-Qaeda frontman is now believed to have fled the city beforehand.

Iraqi security forces said Tuesday that, after receiving a tip-off, they were focusing their hunt for Zarqawi on an area of north-central Iraq.

Iraq was meanwhile pressing ahead with preparations for January's elections as world powers and Middle Eastern states, in a rare show of unity, threw their weight behind the ballot planned for January 30.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, speaking at an international conference on Iraq, termed the vote “critical” to quell the violence in Iraq.

The chronic insecurity gripping Iraq was “the greatest impediment to a successful transition process,” he told the meeting in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

His stand was enshrined in a declaration that was endorsed not only by the United States but also by its regional foes Iran and Syria, and by critics of the Iraq war including China, France and Russia.

Iraqi officials insist that despite persistent unrest, the vote will be held as planned, and election registration officers said more than 220 different political groups had applied to stand ahead of a Tuesday deadline.

Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said in Egypt that the elections would be held on time “whatever the situation.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi urged all Iraqi political groups, Muslim or Christian, Sunni or Shiite, to take part in elections for a national assembly, a regional parliament for the Kurdish north and 18 provincial councils.

Iran, a strict Islamic republic which shares the same Shiite faith as the majority of Iraq's population, stands to see its influence boosted if Shiites dominate the elections which several Sunni groups have threatened to boycott.

On the ground, a Sunni cleric from the influential Council of Muslim Scholars was gunned down north of Baghdad Tuesday in the second attack in as many days to target a member of the group, which has called for a boycott of January's polls.

In the city of Samarra, which was the scene of a previous US-backed counter-insurgency operation in September, five people, including three children, were killed and eight wounded by mortar rounds that struck near a US base.

Further north, the Iraqi national guard took over responsibility from a South African security firm for protecting key oilfields around Kirkuk Tuesday in a bid to stem mounting sabotage by anti-US insurgents, the force's regional commander said.

The state-owned North Oil Company says it has suffered 100 separate attacks since June that have cost 800 million dollars in desperately needed lost earnings.

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