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US, Iraqi troops target resistance in Sunni Triangle

Violence seen likely during Ramadan

BAGHDAD -- US Marines and Iraqi troops raided several mosques in resistance strongholds west of Fallujah yesterday, in a broad offensive just days before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Iraqi troops swept into seven mosques in Ramadi, capital of Anbar Province 60 miles west of Baghdad, and another mosque in the town of Hit, where eyewitnesses said foreign Arab fighters are massing for a battle.

American and Iraqi officials expect a surge of insurgent attacks once Ramadan begins at sundown on Friday, and have been striking known targets for the last several weeks in an effort to disrupt the resistance.

According to the military, insurgents used the mosques as meeting places and weapons depots.

Airstrikes in Fallujah destroyed a famous kebab restaurant in the city center frequented by insurgents and a suspected terrorist safe house.

In Sadr City, meanwhile, fighters in the Mahdi Army, Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's militia, traded weapons for cash vouchers on the second day of a buyback program designed to end the uprising that has rocked the city-within-a-city since April.

But fighters said they were still keeping their most powerful weapons in reserve until they see if a cease-fire agreement holds between the Mahdi Army and US and Iraqi security forces.

The military has made clear it will not shy away from confrontation with insurgents who have controlled Fallujah, Ramadi, and much of the surrounding area in Anbar Province since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.

''Our participation in these raids has been limited to supporting Iraqi security forces," US Marine Brigadier General Joseph F. Dunford, assistant division commander of the First Marine Division, said in a statement.

According to the military, the mosques raided in Ramadi are suspected of ''harboring known terrorists . . . promoting violence against the Iraqi people and encouraging insurgent recruitment."

Troops searched the mosques for insurgents, weapons, and propaganda materials, but the military did not say whether any fighters were captured or any items seized.

On Oct. 8, according to the military, a group of men hid in a mosque after filming a Red Crescent Society office being blown up. Four days earlier, Marines saw mortar rounds fired from a mosque in Karma, a town between Fallujah and Ramadi.

Marines found mortar systems, shells, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, detonators, machine guns and cellphones next to a mosque in Musayyib, an area southeast of Fallujah and Ramadi where insurgents from those cities are believed to roam freely.

''Insurgents are known to take advantage of the protected status normally conferred upon such cultural structures," the military said of the insurgency's use of mosques.

On Monday afternoon at about 4 p.m., according to the military, insurgents sparked a three-hour firefight after attacking Marines and Iraqi National Guard soldiers from the mosque in Hit, a town about 63 miles west of Fallujah along the road to Syria. Marines responded by bombing the mosque from the air.

''The First Marine Division respects the religious and cultural significance represented by mosques," the statement said. ''However, when insurgents violate the sanctity of the mosque by using the structure for military purposes, the site loses its protective status."

The imam of the mosque, Subhi Khairi al-Itawi, denied fighters were stationed there.

The Washington Post reported that local insurgents in Fallujah are turning against the foreign fighters who have been their allies in the rebellion that has held the US military at bay, according to Fallujah residents, insurgent leaders, and Iraqi and US officials. Relations are deteriorating as local fighters negotiate to avoid a US-led military offensive, while foreign fighters press to attack Americans and their Iraqi supporters. The disputes have spilled over into harsh words and sporadic violence, with Fallujans killing at least five foreign Arabs in recent weeks, according to witnesses.

Dozens of people were fleeing the town yesterday, and about 100 heavily armed men had gathered in the town, carrying advanced Russian-made grenade-launchers.

''Fighters who have left Fallujah are coming to Hit," Lieutenant Colonel Anmar al-Obeidi, the town's police chief, said.

Yesterday, witnesses in Fallujah said four Iraqi fighters were killed in the missile strike on a house on the south side of town that insurgents used as a lookout to monitor convoy traffic on the highway into town.

Two people, including a security guard, died when a missile struck one of Fallujah's best-known landmarks, the Haji Hussein kebab restaurant.

Ali Hussein al-Halboosi, the restaurant owner, said he thought the Americans would bomb his restaurant at a mealtime.

''My restaurant is the best," Halboosi said. ''The mujahideen and the insurgents prefer my restaurant and come to me for their three meals."

While clashes escalated in the west, streets were comparatively quiet in eastern Baghdad as Mahdi fighters brought weapons to police stations on the second day of the hand-in program.

Some women and elderly people brought in weapons, like Hindia Saleh, 45, who handed over a rusty rifle. ''I'm in need of money," she said.

But most of the men at the collection points appeared of fighting age, and said they were obeying Sadr's orders that they stop fighting and honor his peace agreement with the Iraqi government.

Hussein Kadhum, 32, a corrections officer, brought 10 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 18 mortars, 24 mortar rounds, and several sniper rifles.

''Everyone will obey Sadr's order, so we can prove to the world that we are peaceful people," Kadhum said.

Next to him Abu Hussein al-Ghizzi had come in a truck loaded with the ammunition, he said, of one Mahdi regiment.

''These are powerful weapons," he said, adding that the regiment had kept plenty more behind. ''This is only a drop in the sea."

Men like Ghizzi brought large caches of weapons, collected by local sheikhs and Sadr office officials from Mahdi fighters who didn't want to come to the weapons collection point themselves.

''Some people are afraid to hand in their weapons personally," said First Lieutenant Husham Issam, 32, of the Iraqi National Guard, who was supervising work at the Jazair police station.

Many Mahdi fighters -- like their Iraqi National Guard counterparts -- covered their faces with scarves or handkerchiefs for fear of being identified.

Iraqi government and American officials hope that Mahdi fighters will surrender all their weapons and take regular jobs, so that the militia won't pose a continuing threat to stability.

But leaders of Sadr's organization made clear they were keeping weapons in reserve, and would not surrender their capacity to fight any time soon.

''We have kept some heavy weapons, in case the American forces violate the agreement," said Fatah al-Shaikh, a spokesman for Sadr.

Sadr officials meanwhile intervened yesterday to win the release of Paul Taggart, 24, a freelance photographer who was kidnapped at gunpoint from the entrance to Sadr City on Sunday. Taggart, an American, spoke to his parents in Tulsa, Okla., by telephone within moments of being released.

Globe correspondent Sa'ad Al-Izzi contributed to this report from Sadr City.

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