U.S.-Iraqi operation kills 50 insurgents near Syrian border
Car explodes outside fortified green zone in Baghdad
U.S. and Iraqi troops launched a dawn assault Monday on another town near the Syrian border and killed 50 insurgents, a U.S. statement said, while the Interior Ministry reported that a car bomb detonated outside a gate leading into the fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad, killing two South Africans.
Meanwhile, Iraq's president said talks on the withdrawal of U.S.-led foreign troops from Iraq can begin at the end of next year.
President Jalal Talabani, in Austria to attend a three-day conference on Islam, gave no timetable for the full pullout of troops.
"We think that in the next two years, we will have come so far and our police forces will have been sufficiently trained that it will be possible to begin talks about pulling out foreign troops, either during next year or after next year," he said.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Monday that talk of withdrawing foreign troops from Iraq in 2006 was "entirely reasonable" as long as a pullout would not leave the country in a "security vacuum."
Speaking at Downing Street alongside Iraqi Vice President Abel Abdel-Mehdi, Blair said a pullout would depend on whether Iraqi forces were capable of taking over duties from coalition troops.
"I think it's entirely reasonable to talk about the possibility of withdrawal of troops next year but it's got to be always conditioned by the fact that we withdraw when the job is done," Blair said.
"It's always been part of our plan to withdraw when the Iraqis are capable of looking after their own security," he said, adding that Britain would not leave Iraq in a "security vacuum."
On the ground in Iraq, Operation Steel Curtain entered a new phase when U.S. and Iraqi forces moved into the Euphrates River valley town of Obeidi, about 300 kilometers west of Baghdad.
Troops had successfully cleared the old part of the town and were now moving into the other half, the statement said.
"Approximately 50 insurgents are estimated to have been killed in sporadic but heavy fighting. The combined force of the Iraqi Army and coalition forces has encountered at least six mines and an improvised bomb," the statement said.
The troops assigned to the 2nd Marine Division have already fought their way through two neighboring towns, Husaybah and Karabilah. U.S. forces believe the border towns have been an entry point for insurgent fighters and weapons into Iraq.
The explosion in Baghdad killed two South Africans and wounded three others working for a U.S. State Department security contractor DynCorp International, U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Elizabeth Colton said. The blast was followed by small arms fire and billowing black smoke that could be seen across the city.
The blast apparently targeted a convoy of sport utility vehicles leaving the Green Zone, the headquarters of the Iraqi government and U.S. forces in Iraq.
The blast occurred near the Iranian Embassy, about 100 meters north of the Green Zone gate, which is surrounded with blast walls.
The attacks followed demands by Sunni Arab politicians for an end to U.S. and Iraqi military operations, claiming they threaten Sunni participation in next month's elections - a key U.S. goal.
Some alleged the Shiite-led government was intentionally carrying out operations northeast of Baghdad to discourage Sunni Arabs from voting - a charge that Iraqi officials have denied.
The Interior Ministry said 310 people were arrested in the Diyala raids, which followed a truck bombing in a Shiite village that killed about 20 people. It did not say whether all those arrested were Sunnis.
U.S. and Iraqi forces also searched the home village of Saddam Hussein's fugitive number two, Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, on Monday after commanders voiced doubts over the credibility of reports of his death. - Agencies