BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Hundreds of U.S. Marines and Iraqi soldiers have launched new raids against insurgent strongholds in a volatile Sunni province, and the head of Iraq’s karate association became the latest victim of kidnapping, officials said Saturday.

A provincial official of the country’s largest Shiite party also was wounded Saturday in an assassination attempt in Mosul, police said, and gunmen fired on the convoy of a provincial governor northeast of Baghdad.

Operation Scimitar started Thursday with raids in the village of Zaidan, 20 miles southeast of Fallujah, the military said. So far, 22 suspected insurgents had been detained.

Fallujah, a western Anbar province city 40 miles west of Baghdad, was a major insurgent bastion until U.S. forces overran the city in November.

The military said it did not announce the offensive earlier because commanders did not want to tip off insurgents. The campaign – named after a curved Asian sword – includes 500 Marines from the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, Regimental Combat Team-8, stationed in Okinawa, Japan, the military said.

The head of Iraq’s karate association, meanwhile, was kidnapped south of Baghdad, sports officials said Saturday. Ali Shakir was abducted Thursday in Latifiyah, about 20 miles south of Baghdad, said Ahmed Hashim, an Iraq Olympic committee official.

It was not clear why Shakir was taken. Hundreds of Iraqis have been abducted during the last two years – some by insurgents for political and sectarian reasons and some by criminal gangs for ransom.

His abduction came two days after a Web site claimed that al-Qaida in Iraq had killed Egyptian envoy Ihab al-Sherif, who was seized by up to eight gunmen on a street in western Baghdad last weekend.

Al-Sherif’s abduction and attacks against Pakistani and Bahraini envoys have sent shockwaves through the diplomatic community in Iraq and raised concerns about a possible exodus of diplomats, especially Arab delegations. Neighboring Jordan said it would not bow to fears,

Jordan will send its ambassador to Iraq “sooner rather than later,” King Abdullah II said in a CNN interview aired Saturday. “We are not going to allow again these limited extremists that are trying to destabilize the future of Iraq to have any effect,” he said.

Jordan, a moderate Arab state and a close U.S. ally, has previously said it will return its ambassador to Baghdad, but Abdullah’s confirmation was Amman’s first since al-Sherif’s disappearance.

Egyptian and Iraqi officials said Egypt would temporarily close its mission in Iraq and recall its staff – although al-Sherif’s body has not been found and the Web statement contained no photographic evidence of his death.

Pakistan’s Ambassador Mohammed Younis Khan left the country Wednesday after his convoy was fired on in a kidnap attempt. Bahrain’s top envoy, Hassan Malallah al-Ansari, was expected to leave soon after he was slightly wounded in a separate attempt.

South of Baghdad, meanwhile, pamphlets were slipped under doors of 22 Shiite families warning them to flee the area or face decapitation. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the fliers on Saturday.

The pamphlets were signed by the “Mujahedeen Brigades” and distributed in the religiously mixed town of Youssifiyah. They accused the families of links to the militia of the Shiite Supreme Council.

Sunni Arabs, who dominated Iraq until Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003, boycotted January elections and are believed to make up the core of an insurgency that has killed more than 1,475 people since the Shiite-led government took office on April 28.

Elsewhere, a remote-controlled Predator drone conducted a strike Friday against militants near Qaim, an Anbar province town on the Syrian border, the U.S. military said. The Predator fired a Hellfire missile at a truck carrying rocket-propelled grenades and suspected insurgents.

Two insurgents were killed, said Marine 1st Lt. Pamela Marshall, a spokeswoman.

In Operation Scimitar, 100 Iraqi soldiers supported the Marines in efforts to dismantle insurgent networks in Anbar province.

The latest counterinsurgency offensive came on the heels of Operations Spear, Dagger and Sword. The region stretches from Baghdad province’s western limits to the porous Syrian border and holds a number of insurgent strongholds.

The frontier area is believed to be a main entryway for foreign fighters seeking to carry out attacks in Iraq, intelligence officials say.

Separately, hundreds of slum dwellers in eastern Baghdad’s Sadr City signed a petition demanding U.S. and foreign troops leave Iraq. The petition drive came a day after radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr issued a religious decree to collect one million signatures for the petition.

In other developments Saturday:

• Gunmen in three cars killed police Capt. Saad Mihsin Abdul Sadah in Amiriyah as he was on his way to work at the Interior Ministry, police said.

• Masked gunmen opened fire at Yahya al-Haidari of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, hospital officials said. Al-Haidari and three bodyguards were wounded.

• The deputy governor of Diyala province, Aouf Rahoumi, also escaped assassination when gunmen fired on his convoy at Muqdadiyah, 60 miles northeast of Baghdad, officials said.


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