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IRAQI-LED OFFENSIVE

Baghdad sweep worries residents

BAGHDAD -- As thousands of newly minted police officers in mismatched uniforms moved to cinch a security chokehold around this Iraqi capital yesterday, insurgents continued to lash out across the rest of the country.

In an outburst of suicide bombings, assassinations, and ambushes from the northern city of Sinjar to the western border with Syria and the town of Hillah south of here, insurgents killed nearly 40 people in 24 hours. Even in the cordoned capital's outskirts, militants managed to lob four mortars into a factory, killing a watchman.

In Baghdad, State Security Minister Abdulkarim Alinizi confirmed that a videotape posted on the Internet showed the body of Japanese hostage Akihiko Saito, 44. The contractor and former veteran of the French Foreign Legion had been wounded and kidnapped in an insurgent ambush May 8.

Saito, identified by news agencies as a former paratrooper, was working in Iraq for Hart Security Ltd., a British company based in Cyprus. He was in a convoy that an insurgent group, the Ansar al-Sunna Army, said it ambushed in western Iraq as US forces were conducting an offensive near the Syrian border. The video showed a body lying on its back, its face bloodied. ''This is your punishment . . . infidel," an unseen man shouted as gunshots rang out.

Operation Lightning, announced two days in advance by the defense and interior ministers and launched yesterday, will deploy 40,000 police officers and National Guardsmen in the first major Iraqi-led offensive against an insurgency that has killed nearly 700 Iraqis in the month since Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and his Cabinet took power.

That concentration of forces represents at least one-quarter of all Iraqi security personnel in the country, raising concerns among some people in this violence-plagued country that the architects of the massive sweep of the capital have left the rest of Iraq unprotected.

''Every time they start an operation in one region, they forget about the others, so the terrorists run to the exposed places," said Ammar Khzal, 33, who owns a clothes shop. He lamented the announcement of the operation Thursday, giving insurgents two days to slip out of Baghdad.

Nabil Issa, 58, a linguist, predicted that those wreaking havoc in the capital will launch retaliatory operations as soon as the campaign of searches and roadblocks eases.

Military analysts defended the operation, including its public announcement, as an overdue confrontation with the militants who have killed at least 20 senior government officials this month and made doctors, scientists, and other professionals fearful of leaving their homes.

''One of the strategies is to get them to try to leave Baghdad for the provinces," Mohammed Askari, a retired general from Saddam Hussein's disbanded army, said of the hundreds, if not thousands, of insurgents they hope to flush out of Baghdad. ''If they try to go west or to Diyala Province [to the northeast], it will be easy to pursue them."

The operation, to be backed up by about 7,000 US troops and smaller contingents from other foreign forces, got off to an inauspicious start before dawn, when police set up the first of an expected 675 checkpoints along the capital's outskirts. Shortly after noon, the units stationed on the volatile road leading to the western suburb of Abu Ghraib had stopped conducting vehicle inspections and left the checkpoints unmanned. A source at the Interior Ministry said some of the stop-and-search teams were designed to be ''mobile."

With the Abu Ghraib prison holding thousands of detainees, it was unclear where people who might be swept up in the crackdown would be held. In a preliminary sweep alone earlier this month, more than 430 people were detained.

Government officials denied that channeling so many police and special forces to Baghdad will leave other areas vulnerable.

''The deployment of such number in Baghdad won't influence the security situation in other provinces," said Colonel Adnan Abdulrahman, an Interior Ministry spokesman. ''We have more than 160,000 Iraqi police now. In addition, we have the multinational troops ready to help us if they are needed."

In Sadr City, the word on the street was that forces loyal to anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr planned to cooperate with the government offensive.

Authorities probably broadcast details of the operation ahead of its start to explain the highly visible force movements, Iraqi and US officials noted.

''It's kind of hard to hide the size of these movements and the amount of police and military forces, from the Iraqi side, that will be needed," said Lieutenant Colonel Steven Boylan, chief spokesman for the US-led military coalition.

''They're going on the offensive. They're putting everyone in the terrorist organizations on notice that the tables are turning," Boylan said of the psychological aspects of the announcement.

But as Iraqi police, many of them new recruits with minimal training, fanned out across Baghdad, car bombs and remote-controlled roadside detonations took what has become a routine daily toll.

Authorities in Sinjar said witnesses reported at least two simultaneous suicide bombings outside a US-Iraqi military base 75 miles west of Mosul. The blasts killed six people about 10:30 a.m.

And in Kirkuk, gunmen killed Sheik Sabhan Khalaf Jibouri, 52, a Sunni tribal leader.

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