BAGHDAD -- US Marines and Iraqi security forces launched an offensive yesterday against insurgents in troubled cities west of Baghdad after two days of carnage that left nearly 100 people dead.
Meanwhile, Sunni Muslim tribal leaders met to determine their place in a Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi government.
As the Shi'ite majority prepared to take control of the country's first freely elected government, tribal chiefs representing Sunni Arabs in six provinces issued a list of demands, including participation in the government and in the drafting of a constitution, after previously refusing to acknowledge the vote's legitimacy.
"We made a big mistake when we didn't vote," said Sheik Hathal Younis Yahiya, 49, a representative from northern Nineveh. "Our votes were very important."
He said threats from insurgents, not sectarian differences, kept most Sunnis from voting. Sunnis make up 20 percent of the population of 26 million compared with the Shi'ite's 60 percent.
Gathering in a central Baghdad hotel, about 70 tribal leaders from the provinces of Baghdad, Kirkuk, Salaheddin, Diyala, Anbar, and Nineveh tried to devise a strategy for participation in a future government. There was an air of desperation in some quarters of the smoke-filled conference room.
"When we said that we are not going to take part, that didn't mean that we are not going to take part in the political process. We have to take part in the political process and draft the new constitution," said Adnan al-Duleimi, head of Sunni Endowments in Baghdad.
Just west of the capital, US Marines and Iraqi security forces launched a joint operation to crack down on insurgents and terrorists in several troubled cities, the military said.
The operation was underway in several Euphrates River cities in Anbar Province, including Heet, Baghdad, Hadithah, and the provincial capital, Ramadi, where authorities imposed a nighttime curfew, the military said.
Meanwhile, a powerful Sunni group believed to have ties with the insurgents sought yesterday to condemn the weekend attacks that left nearly 100 Iraqis dead. "We won't remain silent over those crimes which target the Iraqi people -- Sunnis or Shi'ites, Islamic or non-Islamic," Sheik Harith al-Dhari of the Association Muslim Scholars said at a news conference.
Iraqis, he said, should unite "against those who are trying to incite hatred between us."
They include Iraq's leading terror mastermind, the Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In a letter to Osama bin Laden found on a captured Al Qaeda courier last year, Zarqawi proposed starting a civil war between Iraq's Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims.
Shi'ites and their clergy-backed United Iraqi Alliance, which received nearly half the election votes, were to decide in coming days on their choice for prime minister.
The two main candidates so far are the former Pentagon favorite Ahmed Chalabi, a secular Shi'ite, and Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the interim vice president.
In an interview last week, Chalabi contended that he had enough support among the 140 alliance delegates elected to the National Assembly to beat Jaafari. He repeated the assertion in a television appearance yesterday on ABC's "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos. "I believe I have a majority of the votes on my side right now," Chalabi said.
Shi'ite politicians have promised not to allow the bloodshed to escalate into a civil war.
Moqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shi'ite cleric who led two bloody revolts against US forces, called on Iraqis to avoid blaming any religious group. "As for the latest attacks and the ones before, I think they are a series of attacks against the Iraqi people in general and are not targeting a specific religious group," he said on Al-Jazeera television.
On Saturday, eight suicide bombers killed 55 people in a series of attacks, as Iraqi Shi'ites commemorated the 7th-century death of a leader of their Muslim sect. Similar attacks Friday killed 36 people and injured dozens.
It was the second year that violence marred Ashoura, the holiest day of the Shi'ite religious calendar, but the deaths were less than the 181 killed last year in twin bombings in Baghdad and the holy city of Karbala. The toll this year also included a US soldier killed in a Baghdad suicide bombing.
In some Baghdad neighborhoods, barriers were erected yesterday to prevent suicide bombers from carrying out attacks against funeral tents and processions -- as they did with deadly effect Saturday. At a funeral in the Bayaa District, near the site of that attack, 50 chairs were set up inside a tent, but only 10 people showed up. Some mourners said they had no fear because they no longer cared.
"I am not afraid simply because we are in Iraq living like the dead." said Abdel Zahra Farhoud, a 55-year-old farmer. "The Wahhabi extremist groups have turned our lives to hell."
Also yesterday, a roadside bomb killed two Iraqi National Guardsmen in Baghdad. In the same area, coalition forces opened fire on a car that approached their convoy too closely, killing an Iraqi man, police said.