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Iraqi militant group threatens election

U.S. death toll reaches 51 in Falluja offensive

Marines collect parcels as mail is delivered to the front line in Falluja.
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- An Islamic militant group in Iraq warned Muslims to skip the country's coming elections, and said anyone who runs for office would be branded an infidel and "punished in the name of God."

Thursday's threat came as the death toll for U.S. troops in Falluja climbed to 51 since American and Iraqi troops launched an offensive against insurgents there 11 days ago.

The campaign has "broken the back of the insurgency there," but the city remains dangerous as troops continue to encounter holdout rebels and uncover weapons caches, said Lt. Gen. John Sattler, commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

Meanwhile, insurgents fired a mortar round Thursday into the office of Nineveh's provincial governor in Mosul, the U.S. military said. U.S. and Iraqi security forces have stepped up their fight against the resistance in the northern city, in response to an insurgent offensive apparently timed to divert attention from the Falluja operation. (Full story)

The militant group, Ansar al-Sunna, said in a statement published on its Web site: "We ask all Muslims to respond to God's calling and avoid showing up at the election posts."

The group warned that voting sites would be targeted "because they are infidel posts."

Iraq's interim government plans to hold elections for a transitional parliament in January, and the offensive against insurgents in Falluja was meant to restore interim government control over that area ahead of the vote.

"We warn everyone who will run in this election that by doing so, he chose to be an infidel and that he will be punished in the name of God," Ansar al-Sunna said. "The same will go to the American crusaders and their allies, their collaborators who support these elections."

The group claimed responsibility for the October killing of a Kurdish police chief in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, calling it a warning to Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Massoud Barzani. The militants consider Kurdish leaders traitors for cooperating with U.S.-led forces in the invasion of Iraq.

It also claimed responsibility for the killings of three KDP members in September and 12 Nepalese contractors in August.

The group said elections were meant "to deceive the people that they are free and that they can elect their own president and government in a democratic and free approach." It also denounced efforts to bring democracy to Iraq as an "infidel curriculum."

The statement said Muslims had a duty to fight U.S. troops and "to work on establishing the rule of God in our country."

Clean-up operation commenced

Sattler said 51 U.S. troops and eight Iraqi security forces have died in the Falluja offensive, while 425 U.S. and 43 Iraqi forces have been wounded.

About 1,200 insurgents have been killed in the battle, he said.

Troops remain busy conducting mop-up operations and engaging in sporadic fights with holdout insurgents.

Sattler said U.S. and Iraqi troops are "ubiquitous" throughout the city.

"Falluja is secure, but we're in that search-and-clear phase which will make it safe," he said.

"We've commenced the clean-up operation" and humanitarian assistance is being moved into the town.

About 25 to 30 injured civilians in the city have been treated for injuries, Sattler said, adding that he knows of no civilians killed in the fighting.

He said more than 1,000 suspects have been captured. Some have been released after questioning.

Raid uncovers terrorist safe house

During recent house-to-house raids in southeast Falluja, U.S. and Iraqi forces uncovered what appeared to be an abandoned safe house used by insurgents loyal to both al Qaeda and wanted terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

There were two letters inside the house, one from al-Zarqawi giving instructions to two of his lieutenants in the region. Another sought money and help from the terrorist leader.

It is believed that the two lieutenants mentioned in the two letters lived in the house the troops found. It is unclear whether they escaped the violence or were killed in recent battles.

Symbols pledging loyalty to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network also adorned the walls of the house. Dead fighters still lay outside the house, where bombs pounded the area in recent weeks.

Last month, a statement attributed to al-Zarqawi's Unification and Jihad movement declared allegiance to al Qaeda.

Unification and Jihad has claimed responsibility for the killings of numerous Westerners in Iraq, including the recent slayings of two Americans and a Briton kidnapped in September.

U.S. and Iraqi authorities have said they believed al-Zarqawi's terrorist network was based in Falluja, but they have acknowledged the group's leaders likely left the city ahead of the offensive.

Other developments

  • Setting aside their differences over the war, French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair told a joint news conference in London they both want a peaceful and stable Iraq. "We should look forward not back -- to a unified, democratic and peaceful Iraq," Chirac declared Thursday. "There is no disagreement here." Chirac is on a two-day state visit to Britain, and the two leaders answered questions after talks in Downing Street. (Full story)
  • The Workers Communist Party of Iraq and the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq staged street demonstrations in Baghdad Thursday to protest the U.S. offensive in Falluja and the American presence in the country. Meanwhile in Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the nation's supreme leader, said all people and nations, including Islamic and Arab countries, must speak up against the U.S.-led offensive in Falluja.
  • CNN's Jane Arraf, Mohammed Tawfeeq, Cal Perry and Kevin Flower contributed to this report.

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