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U.S., Iraqi troops expand offensive

Rocket attack hits Baghdad hotel
Fire burns outside the Sheraton Hotel in central Baghdad on Thursday.
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Insurgents attack a Baghdad hotel where many Westerners stay.

Samarra recovers from operation against insurgents.

L. Paul Bremer criticizes U.S. troop levels in Iraq.
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- More than 2,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops are targeting insurgents in the northern section of Babil province, even as insurgents targeted a hotel near Baghdad's Green Zone.

The U.S. military announced the Babil offensive on Thursday.

The operations are part of a larger effort by U.S.-led forces to establish security ahead of the January Iraqi elections.

The operation in the south-central Iraqi province of Babil began Tuesday following an intense offensive begun last week in the Sunni Triangle city of Samarra, a move that the commander of the 1st Infantry Division declared a success on Wednesday.

Iraqi security forces, led by a SWAT team, and elements of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, captured 13 suspected militants in the town of Haswa in Babil province in a Wednesday afternoon raid, the U.S. military said Thursday.

This comes after raids conducted by the forces "drove insurgents east of the Euphrates River to Haswa," a unit statement said. Insurgent "forces retaliated with small attacks" on Marines from the town.

There have been 48 insurgents captured since the start of the operation, the military said.

The breakdown of U.S.-led forces includes 1,300 Marines and soldiers and 800 Iraqi military and police.

In addition, U.S. forces have been attacking targets linked to terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi almost daily in Falluja.

Rocket attack hits hotel

In central Baghdad, a rocket attack hit the Sheraton Hotel setting off a fire and drawing machine-gun fire from U.S. positions.

The lower level of the Sheraton, which houses Western journalists and foreign contractors, was damaged. There was no immediate word of casualties.

CNN Correspondent Brent Sadler said he saw two low-trajectory rockets.

Video showed tracers whizzing by and a fire burning near the Sheraton and smoke rose around the building. The hotel is in a heavily secured area.

Also, video showed smoke, shattered glass and debris in the hotel lobby, with some armed security people on the scene.

Progress toward peace in Sadr City

A top aide to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said Thursday the militia members loyal to the cleric in the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City and elsewhere would hand in their heavy and medium weapons, but the move would be conditional on particular governmental actions.

Ali Smeisem read a prepared statement on the Arabic-language channel Al Arabiya. It comes as the interim government and the al-Sadr forces pursue a peace initiative to end the fighting in Sadr City, a huge Shiite slum in Baghdad.

The spokesman said the interim government must not harass al-Sadr people unless they can prove they were involved in criminal activity, and must release al-Sadr movement prisoners.

A statement from Dr. Qasim Dawood, Iraq's minister of state for national security affairs, welcomed the offer.

"The government therefore looks forward to this undertaking being respected and implemented. Unlike the old regime, this government will abide by its pledges to afford equal and fair treatment to all, as well as to offer amnesty to those who have not committed crimes against the Iraqi people," Dawood's statement said.

Witnesses in Sadr City told CNN that U.S. airstrikes continued overnight into Thursday.

Sheikh Moayad al-Khazraji, a top aide to al-Sadr, was released from Abu Ghraib prison after a year in custody, an al-Sadr aide told CNN.

Sayid Abdul Hadi al-Daraji, the aide, said the sheikh now is with his family in Baghdad.

The U.S. military and al-Daraji said the release is not part of the wider effort to restore peace in the neighborhood.

Other developments

  • Insurgents in Ramadi blew up the Red Crescent building on Friday, the Combined Press Information Center said in a statement. There was no immediate word of casualties. The destruction of the Red Crescent Building was the third attack in the last two weeks, according to the statement.
  • Saddam Hussein did not possess stockpiles of illicit weapons at the time of the U.S. invasion in March 2003 and had not begun any program to produce them, a CIA report concludes. (Full story)
  • Insurgent attacks killed a 13th Corps Support Command soldier near Falluja and a 1st Infantry Division soldier near Beiji. This brings the number of U.S. troop deaths since the Iraqi war began to 1,067, according to the U.S. military.
  • A part-time British soldier faces a court- martial next week in connection with fake pictures published in the Daily Mirror newspaper supposedly showing UK troops abusing Iraqi prisoners, the Ministry of Defense said. (Full story)
  • CNN's Ayman Mohyeldin, Kianne Sadeq and Ingrid Formanek and Brent Sadler contributed to this report.

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