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U.S. military targets Ramadi area before election

Insurgents reportedly using Euphrates corridor as escape route

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Two Iraqi soldiers check a car at an army checkpoint Thursday in the southern city of Basra.

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- American troops are focusing their efforts on the Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi to establish stability ahead of the December 15 elections, a U.S. military spokesman said Thursday.

Insurgents affiliated with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al Qaeda in Iraq have been gravitating toward the city west of Baghdad and the surrounding region as a means to escape other towns along the Euphrates River, said the spokesman, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch.

Lynch said that over the next two weeks "we will conduct detailed operations to ensure" that people in the city can go out to vote.

Early Thursday gunmen attacked a government building in Ramadi with mortars and machine guns, an eyewitness said.

Some gunmen carried banners saying, "The mujahedeen will destroy the Americans and send them to hell," and "Long live the mujahedeen," the observer said.

But Capt. Jeffrey Pool of the 2nd Marine Division dismissed talk of widespread attacks in Ramadi. "As of 2 p.m., there were no signs of any significant insurgent activity anywhere in the city," said Pool, from Camp Blue Diamond in Ramadi.

Pool said a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at a U.S.-Iraqi observation post around 9:30 a.m. (1:30 a.m. ET), but there were no casualties or damage.

U.S. and Iraqi forces have been launching a series of operations against insurgents in western Anbar towns near the Syrian border and the Euphrates River corridor since earlier this year.

One of these, Operation Tigers, occurred in Ramadi over the weekend. Another, Iron Hammer, targeted the area near Hit, a Euphrates River town north of Ramadi.

Along the Tigris River in southern Baghdad, a surprise U.S.-Iraqi operation resulted in the arrests of 33 suspected insurgents, the U.S. military said Thursday.

Hundreds of U.S. soldiers and Iraqi forces secured seven areas along the Tigris in a Tuesday operation, the military said.

Dubbed Operation Thunder Blitz, it involved U.S. soldiers from the 3rd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, and Iraqi forces from the 1st Battalion, 2nd Commando Brigade (Wolf Battalion), the military said.

In Washington, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the withdrawal of some of the 157,000 troops in Iraq is likely after this month's elections there. But he stressed that "decisions will be guided by what commanders on the ground recommend."

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff on Thursday urged civilian and military personnel to do a better job of explaining President Bush's strategy to achieve victory in his war on terrorism.

There is "no option but victory," Marine Gen. Peter Pace told students at the National Defense University at Fort McNair. (Full story)

"I say to those now who say we should just stop fighting in Iraq, just stop fighting in Afghanistan, just stop fighting the terrorists and this would just go away -- you need to get out and read what our enemies are saying," Pace said. "Remember Hitler. He wrote 'Mein Kampf.' "

Meanwhile, most Americans do not believe the president has a plan that will achieve victory in Iraq, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll released Wednesday night found. (Full story)

Other developments

  • Three U.S. Marines and a soldier died Wednesday in separate incidents in Iraq, the military said Thursday. Two Marines were killed by small-arms fire during combat in Falluja, the military said. A third Marine died in a "nonhostile" vehicle accident about 50 miles (80 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad, the military said. The soldier, assigned to Task Force Baghdad, died from a gunshot wound north of the capital, the military said. The number of U.S. troops killed in the Iraq war stands at 2,113.
  • Police say they believe that a Belgian-born woman and convert to Islam, pictured and identified Thursday in a Belgian newspaper, was the first Western woman to carry out a suicide bombing in Iraq. (Full story)
  • The German government and groups that are part of the British anti-war movement are trying to contact kidnappers of five Westerners, who went missing over the weekend in Iraq. The captives have been identified as a German archaeologist and four Christian humanitarian workers from Canada, the United States and Britain. (Full story)
  • The U.S. Defense Department said it was looking into a report that the U.S. military is paying Iraqi media for favorable articles about the war and the rebuilding effort. (Full story)
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