US, Iraqi troops launch major offensive
By Claudia Parsons
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - About 3,500 U.S. and Iraqi troops launched a major offensive near Iraq's Syrian border on Saturday to hunt down al Qaeda fighters, the military said, adding its aim was to ensure residents can vote in next month's election.
Operation Steel Curtain was one of the biggest in a series of offensives this year in the Sunni Arab western province of Anbar, which has been a focal point of the insurgency against the Shi'ite- and Kurdish-led government and its U.S. backers.
Troops closed roads and clamped down on movement around the frontier town of Qusayba, near Qaim, as Iraqis celebrated the Eid holiday marking the end of Ramadan.
Residents reported clashes between U.S. troops and rebels around the dusty, low-lying town of about 30,000 people.
"The objectives of Operation Steel Curtain are to restore security along the Iraqi-Syrian border and destroy the al Qaeda in Iraq terror network operating throughout Qusayba," the U.S. Marines said in a statement.
U.S. commanders have warned of a rise in violence in the weeks leading up to the December 15 election, likely to be fought along largely sectarian and ethnic lines.
One of Iraq's main Sunni Arab parties, the National Dialogue, condemned the offensive, saying it would "shed the blood of more innocent people".
The party also called for Defense Minister Saadoun Dulaimi, one of the few Sunnis in government, to be sacked over reported comments this week warning people against harboring insurgents.
"The defense minister said on television: 'We will bring down their houses on the heads of their children.' He should be taken to an international court and judged as one of the war criminals of Iraq," the National Dialogue said in a statement.
Defense Ministry officials were not available for comment.