BAGHDAD (AFP) -Thousands of US troops widened their hunt for Al-Qaeda insurgents in a new offensive along Iraq”s Euphrates Valley, as Iraqi security forces braced for possible attacks with the start of Ramadan.
Some 2,500 US soldiers launched the operation around Haditha, Haqlaniyah and Barwana in western Iraq on Tuesday, the latest and largest such sweep in Al-Anbar province this year, the military said in a statement.
The new offensive, codenamed River Gate, aims "to deny Al-Qaeda in Iraq the ability to operate in the three Euphrates River Valley cities and to free the local citizens from the insurgents” campaign of murder and intimidation."
"Haditha is an important crossroads for (Al-Qaeada in Iraq fighters”) smuggling activities from the Syrian border," it added.
The operation follows hot on the heels of Operation Iron Fist, another sweep by 1,000 US troops further up the river, near the Syrian border.
At least 33 rebels have been killed in this operation since it started on Saturday, the military said, adding that a US soldier was killed in a bomb attack in Haqlaniyah on Monday.
The latest American death brings to at least 1,926 the number of US military personnel killed in Iraq since the US-led invasion of March 2003, according to Pentagon figures.
Iraqi Sunnis meanwhile started to observe the traditional month-long daylight fasting period Monday, with Shiites due to start fasting on Wednesday or Thursday, as determined by their religious leaders.
In Baghdad, security forces sought to tighten strict security precautions further after a series of rebel attacks at the start of Ramadan last year, some of them on Christian churches.
"It”s going to be very intense in the next few days, especially with Ramadan," according to one Western diplomat.
Authorities are also expecting increased violence in the run-up to the October 15 referendum on a new constitution, meant to turn the page on the regime of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein who himself faces trial on October 19.
US and Iraqi security forces Tuesday also sealed off a district of Ramadi, 110 kilometres (65 miles) northwest of Baghdad, which they began to search, the military said.
Some 400 Iraqi forces and 500 US soldiers were engaged in Operation "Mountaineers" in Tammin district "to disrupt insurgents in southern Ramadi who are transporting weapons and munitions into the city."
"The current operation will help establish a more secure environment for local citizens” forthcoming participation in the October 15 referendum," the military added.
Meanwhile, in the southern Iraqi province of Najaf, a British national has been arrested after allegedly crossing over from Saudi Arabia with an armed band of of men, Iraqi officials said.
"We can confirm that a UK national has been arrested by the Iraqi department of border enforcement," a British military spokesman said, adding that the Foreign Office was investigating the incident which was believed to have happened Monday night.
An Iraqi border guard spokesman in Najaf, Saadun al-Jaaberi, said guards arrested "a terrorist group consisting of 10 people, including one British national called Colin Peter, near Mathlum, near the Saudi border".
The other nine were Iraqis from the southern city of Basra, he said.
The group was armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles and were carrying a video camera, a satellite telephone and GPS satellite positioning device, Jaaberi added.
The British embassy in Baghdad could not immediately be reached for comment.