Iraq launches fresh raids on rebels

BAGHDAD (Reuters) — Iraq’s prime minister announced a new phase in anti-insurgency operations on Monday, as troops seized more than 100 suspects around Baghdad airport and hunted the kidnappers of Egypt’s envoy in the capital.

Political efforts to undermine revolt among Sunni Arabs moved forward with parliament’s formal acceptance of minority delegates from outside the Shiite-dominated national assembly who will join the committee drafting a constitution.

Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari announced a new crackdown on insurgents would begin on Tuesday, offering no details. Six weeks ago, a similar declaration heralded Operation Lightning, a continuing clampdown on bombers and gunmen in Baghdad that had, at the last count, brought in over 1,200 detainees.

“Tomorrow, a new plan will be launched, reinforcing our raids,” Jaafari told reporters.

After something of a lull in the first month of Operation Lightning, there have been several big suicide attacks in the capital over the past two weeks.

The abduction of Egyptian envoy Ihab El Sherif is also a setback to government efforts to show improved security.

Hundreds of troops from Iraq’s new army, backed by US soldiers, mounted a dawn raid around Baghdad Airport on Monday, rounding up more than 100 suspects, some of them Egyptians and other foreigners, the US military said in a statement.

There was no mention of any link to the missing diplomat; 48 hours on, fellow Egyptian officials said there had been no word from the kidnappers, who grabbed him after he stepped out of his car on Saturday to buy a paper at a roadside newsstand.

“No one has contacted us yet,” an Egyptian diplomat said.

Iran, Syria visits

The kidnap came just days after Iraq indicated Sherif was soon to become the first Arab diplomat in Baghdad with the full rank of ambassador since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

US and Iraqi leaders have urged other Arab states, nearly all Sunni-led, to give full recognition to the 10-week-old Shiite- and Kurdish-led government in Iraq by upgrading ties.

Jaafari said he planned soon to visit Syria, which said last week it would soon reopen an embassy in Baghdad. Iraq and Washington have been pressing Damascus to crack down on foreign Sunni radicals they say are coming in from Syria to fight.

Before visiting Damascus, Jaafari said he would travel to Iran. Jaafari is a Shiite Islamist whose government’s sectarian ties to Shiite Iran bother some Arab leaders.

A government source told Reuters the visit to Tehran would probably happen in 8 to 10 days and that among issues could be the signing of a deal to build a short pipeline carrying Iraqi oil to Abadan in Iran, where it would be refined and returned to Iraq to ease fuel shortages in the oil-rich country.

Washington and Baghdad are trying to use diplomacy and politics to defuse the Sunni Arab insurgency that has grown much more violent since the government took power in April after a January election in which few Sunnis took part.

Bush defiant

In an Independence Day speech, US President George W. Bush said the insurgents were trying to break Americans’ resolve but US troops would “stay until the fight is won.”

Iraq’s parliament formally welcomed 15 new Sunni Arab members to the committee tasked with writing a constitution, making it the first national political body to include significant representation from Saddam’s formerly dominant 20 per cent minority since the election.

Committee Chairman Humam Hamoudi said the Sunnis would join the other members on Tuesday: “Tomorrow after lunch we will meet and we will organise the work of sub-committees. We will show (the new members) the drafts we have reached so far.”

The committee was expanded to 71 members to include more Sunni Arabs. Previously there were just two.

The committee, which must agree on a draft constitution by August 15 ahead of an October referendum and December election, will have its first full meeting on Wednesday, Hamoudi said.

“On Wednesday we will begin serious discussions to see what we agree on and what we don’t agree on,” Hamoudi said. “Then we will discover what are the sensitive issues.”

He said the main bones of contention would probably be the extent to which the constitution described Iraq as an Arab state, and the boundaries and degree of autonomy of federal regions like the mainly Kurdish — non-Arab — north.

Western diplomats observing the process closely have said arguments over the structure of government — expected to be broadly a parliamentary rather than presidential system — may also be extensive, as might any clause on the rights of women.

“The really hard bargaining hasn’t started yet,” one Western diplomat said last week. “It’ll get into the really heavy-duty horse-trading at the end of the month.”

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