BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – About 1,000 U.S. service members launched an offensive in western Iraq near the Syrian border on Saturday aimed insurgents from this country’s most feared militant group, Al-Qaida in Iraq, the military said.

The operation against “a known terrorist sanctuary” began in the town of Sadah in the western province of Anbar, about 8 miles from the Iraq-Syrian border, the U.S. military said in a statement.

The offensive also was aimed at stopping foreign insurgents from entering the country from Syria and at improving security in the area before Iraq’s Oct. 15 national referendum on the country’s draft constitution, the military said.

No civilian or military casualties were immediately reported, and the U.S. military declined to say whether Iraqi forces also were taking part in the operation.

Elsewhere, the U.S. military released about 500 Iraqi detainees from the notorious Abu Ghraib prison out the outskirts of Baghdad on Saturday, completing its plan to free a total of more than 1,000 this week in honor of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The releases began Monday with the freeing of more than 500 detainees at Abu Ghraib prison, which gained international notoriety after a number of U.S. military personnel were charged with humiliating and assaulting detainees at the facility.

The Abu Ghraib actions, made at the request of Iraq’s government, also appeared to be part of its effort to persuade Iraqis to vote in the Oct. 15 national referendum, especially the country’s minority Sunnis. Many of them oppose the constitution, saying it would give Kurds living in the north and majority Shiites in the south with too much independence and control over Iraq’s oil wealth, and leave Sunnis isolated in the central and western Iraq.

On Thursday and Friday, Sunni insurgents hit two Shiite towns – Balad and Hillah – with brutal bombings that killed more than 110 people, apparently aiming at scaring Shiites away from the crucial constitutional vote. The car bomb attacks seemed staged to kill or maim as many civilians as possible, tearing through busy markets and commercial streets.

Insurgents have vowed to derail the referendum, and the recent surge of violence has killed at least 200 people – including 13 U.S. service members – in the past six days.

The Sunni-led al-Qaida in Iraq, the most feared insurgent group, has declared “all-out war” on Shiites, and since a Shiite-majority government took power April 28, suicide bombers have killed at least 1,345 people, according to an Associated Press count.

On Saturday in the western town of Sadah, about 1,000 U.S. Marines, soldiers and sailors from Regimental Combat Team-2 took part in the U.S. military offensive, which was named “Operation Iron Fist.”

It is aimed at rooting out Al-Qaida in Iraq insurgents and disrupting their support systems in and around the town near the Syrian border, the military said.

In recent months, the statement said, the insurgents have established a base in Sadah and used it to launch attacks against Iraqi civilians and U.S. and Iraqi in the area.


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