BAGHDAD, Nov. 23 -- U.S., British and Iraqi troops mounted raids Tuesday in a swath of territory south of Baghdad where armed insurgents have seized control of several cities and towns, imposed stringent Islamic law and carried out kidnappings and executions of Iraqi police officers and religious pilgrims at checkpoints along the main roads.
The intensity of the U.S.-led campaign remained unclear, but a new offensive would mark the fourth major assault since October attempting to restore security in Sunni Muslim regions before nationwide elections scheduled for Jan. 30. After Fallujah, where U.S. and Iraqi forces began a week-long offensive on Nov. 8, the region south of Baghdad is one of the country's most perilous. Dubbed by some Iraqis the "triangle of death," the area is less than an hour from Baghdad, giving rebels a launching pad for attacks on the capital.
For weeks, U.S. commanders have been considering an offensive against the region, a string of dusty towns off the west bank of the Euphrates River that is populated by Sunni and Shiite Muslims alike. But any attack had to wait until U.S. forces concluded operations in Samarra, about 65 miles north of the capital, in October, and this month in Fallujah, to the west, and Mosul, in the north.
The raids that began Tuesday were carried out by troops already stationed in the area, and military commanders suggested that the brunt of the fighting may still await the dispatch of armored reinforcements from other regions in coming weeks.
"We see that as a place we can go and have tremendous impact on the security situation in Baghdad because the enemy is using that as a sanctuary right now," one senior U.S. officer said this week. "We just haven't been able to get enough force down there to go and find the [weapons] caches, then stay down there and get the police up and running."
The fighting Tuesday began with a series of raids in Jabella, about 50 miles south of Baghdad. The military said it detained 32 suspected insurgents and, with Iraqi forces, conducted house-to-house searches and set up traffic checkpoints. In the past three weeks, the military said, U.S. and Iraqi forces have arrested nearly 250 insurgents.
The military assertions could not be independently verified. The territory has become too dangerous for foreign reporters to visit, and many Iraqis have stopped traveling through the area on the way to cities farther south.
The raids involved elements of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, British troops of the 1st Battalion of the Black Watch Regiment and Iraqi security forces, which together number more than 5,000. The British troops were brought in from Basra, in southern Iraq, to free up U.S. troops and help police routes to Fallujah and Baghdad.
Senior U.S. officers have talked about the possibility of sending a large armored Army force into the largely rural area, drawing troops from the 1st Cavalry Division, which is responsible for the region around Baghdad. But with a sizable segment of the division still tied up in Fallujah, the Marines and the British force were ordered to proceed Tuesday. A U.S. Army officer familiar with the operation said that a significant Army force might still be sent there in coming weeks to continue the push.
Jabella is east of the most restive part of the region, which includes the towns of Latifiyah, Yusufiyah, Mahmudiyah and Iskandariyah. There were no reports of fighting or raids in Latifiyah, which residents describe as being under the rule of insurgents who freely roam the streets and set up checkpoints at will.
Residents there and elsewhere in the area say insurgents have imposed a restrictive strain of religious law, forcing men to keep their hair short and women to wear veils and modest clothing. Shiite pilgrims traveling through the region to the sacred shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala have been harassed, abducted and sometimes killed, residents say. Dozens of police and National Guard members have been assassinated.
This month, U.S. and allied forces have conducted the most aggressive military operations since the occupation of Iraq began in April 2003. In addition to the fighting in Fallujah, more than 2,400 U.S. troops entered Mosul last week after insurgents launched an uprising and most police officers deserted their posts.
In Washington, officials were cautiously upbeat about the military situation in Iraq. "We continue to take the battle to the enemy," Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon news conference.
Myers also said that during a recent trip to Iraq, he looked at whether there were enough U.S. troops, an issue that commanders have raised in recent days. "As we flush out insurgents in places such as Fallujah, it is important to have the appropriate force levels to maintain a secure environment," Myers said.