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U.S.-led forces conduct raids south of Baghdad; 2nd cleric killed

BAGHDAD, Iraq—More than 5,000 American, British and Iraqi troops swept through a lawless region south of Baghdad on Tuesday in a new move to crush insurgent unrest before national elections in January, even as assassins killed a Sunni Muslim cleric opposed to the vote.

Sheik Ghalib Ali al-Zuhairi was headed to dawn prayers at a mosque in Muqdadiyah, 60 miles north of Baghdad, when he was slain. It was the second murder in as many days of a prominent member of the Muslim Scholars Association, an influential group that's urging Sunni Muslims to boycott the vote.

The military offensive occurred in Babil province, south of the capital, in an area known as the "triangle of death" because of frequent attacks on travelers. Violence there had surged following the U.S.-led offensive two weeks ago to dislodge insurgent forces in Fallujah, west of the capital, a U.S. military statement said.

U.S. troops and their allies arrested 32 suspected insurgents in early morning raids in Jabella, 50 miles south of Baghdad, the statement said. Later, troops conducted house-to-house searches and vehicle checks along roads.

The offensive included members of a British battle group, the Black Watch Regiment, which recently moved north from Basra, the military statement said. The combined forces are seeking "to squeeze militants attempting to run the `rat lines' between northern Babil and Baghdad," it said, referring to insurgent supply lines.

"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 and those who violently oppose a free and democratic Iraq," the statement said.

The Iraqi electoral commission announced Sunday that Iraqis would participate in their first democratic parliamentary elections in more than half a century on Jan. 30 despite bloodshed tearing at the oil-rich country.

Sunni clerics have condemned the elections, saying they can't be held as long as U.S. forces remain in Iraq. Without Sunni participation, the elections run the risk of failing to draw a popular mandate, prolonging unrest and factional violence.

On Monday, gunmen killed a cleric in Mosul in northern Iraq. The cleric, Sheik Feydhi Mohammed al Feydhi, also was a member of the Muslim Scholars Association.

There was violence throughout the country. Coalition soldiers arrested 38 people in raids near Kirkuk, in the north. The pre-dawn raids also netted assault rifles, other munitions and communications equipment, the military said.

Two insurgents were killed in the outskirts of Samarra when a bomb they were attempting to plant detonated, security sources said.

A third fighter was killed in a similar incident in Baiji, northeast of Baghdad, the Al-Jazeera television network said.

At Baghdad's international airport, security was tight after a bomb was found on a commercial flight Monday, the U.S. Embassy said. The bomb, which was discovered on a cargo plane, contained 9 pounds of explosives and was rigged with an altitude device to make it detonate once the plane was airborne, security people said.

The airport has been converted into a U.S. military base, and insurgents from surrounding areas have targeted aircraft landing and taking off there with gunfire and missile attacks.

Since travel by land is risky, most international travelers come to Iraq through the airport on a handful of daily commercial flights operated by Iraqi Airways or Royal Jordanian Airlines, both of which fly to neighboring Jordan.

The airport was closed for a week during the Fallujah offensive.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Yasser Salihee contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Iraq

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