BAGHDAD, Iraq – Bomb blasts killed six Marines as the U.S. military announced Friday it had completed a major sweep in western Iraq aimed at suppressing al-Qaida militants before next week’s vote on Iraq’s constitution.

The military said 50 insurgents were killed in the six-day offensive, launched Oct. 1 in towns near the Syrian border. The operation was the first in a series of major offensives in the past week in the heartland of the Sunni-led insurgency.

U.S. forces have swept through the area before – most recently in May – but militants have always returned, bringing in foreigners from Syria and planning attacks to be carried out elsewhere. The military said they will now leave a long-term presence there.

The military has said it will wrap up the operations in time for Sunni Arabs in the region to vote in the Oct. 15 referendum, a key concern of Sunni leaders who have threatened a boycott.

Eight days before Iraqis were to approve or reject the draft constitution, most were still waiting for copies of it to read. Distribution began in a few Baghdad neighborhoods, but did not appear to have begun elsewhere.

Campaigning has begun in earnest, however, with radio and television running call-in and talk shows on the document, which has strongly divided Iraq’s Shiite majority and Sunni minority. Shiite and Kurdish leaders support the constitution – whose passage the United States is eager to see – while Sunnis denounce it, saying it will split the country.

Walls around Baghdad were plastered with posters advertising the referendum. One depicts a white-veiled woman over the slogan “Our dreams are greater than their threats,” seeking to overcome fears of insurgent retaliation attacks against those who vote.

In a boost to the pro-constitution side, radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr – one of the few influential Shiite leaders to speak out against the document – gave his followers approval to vote “yes.”

Sadr has said his only reservation is over terms of federalism outlined in the constitution, but that his followers have the freedom to choose, an aide told The Associated Press, adding that the tendency of Sadr’s group is “toward yes.” The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because of political sensitivities surrounding the document.

Other Shiite clerics have strongly backed the constitution

The border offensive known as Operation Iron Fist ended late Thursday, but a post of coalition forces will remain in the town of Sadah, eight miles from Syria. The stronger coalition presence is an attempt to prevent militants from gaining a foothold and to stop foreign fighters from entering across the border, the military said. It did not specify the nationality of the forces.

In the hours before the offensive’s end, a roadside bomb killed two Marines outside Qaim, near Sadah, the military said.

Closer to Baghdad – away from the offensives – a roadside blast Thursday killed four Marines in Karmah, outside the city of Fallujah, the military said.

The deaths brought to 1,950 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

The 1,000 Marines, soldiers and sailors involved in Iron Fist killed some 50 insurgents, the military said. On Thursday, warplanes dropped four precision-guided bombs on an abandoned hotel seized by militants in the town of Karabilah, near Sadah, killing 20 militants.

Further down the Euphrates River valley, which snakes through western Anbar province, some 2,500 U.S. troops and hundreds of Iraqi soldiers have been sweeping through the towns of Haditha, Haqlaniyah and Parwana in a separate operation launched Tuesday. So far, the military has announced six insurgent deaths in the sweep, 140 miles northwest of Baghdad.

Six U.S. service members have been killed in the two operations, including the deaths Thursday. The military has not reported any deaths of American service members in two smaller operations – one west of Baghdad, one in northern Iraq.

The U.S. military says the sweeps will push back insurgents and provide a safe atmosphere for voters. Sunni Arab leaders, however, fear the clampdown will dissuade their followers from going to the polls, frustrating their goal of a high Sunni turnout to defeat the constitution.

Saleh al-Mutlaq, a leading Sunni politician, called on all sides to stop fighting for Ramadan, which began Tuesday for Sunnis and Wednesday for Shiites and lasts 28 days.

“It is forbidden for Muslims to fight in this holy month, especially since we are on the countdown for the referendum and then the elections,” he said. “I call everybody to stop violence at least in Ramadan and start over a dialogue with all the involved parties.”

Sunni leaders are pushing to get a two-thirds “no” vote in three of Iraq’s 18 provinces, which would defeat the charter even if it gets a nationwide majority. They have a chance of doing so in four provinces.

Sunni-led insurgents are seeking to undermine the vote with attacks that have killed more than 300 people the past two weeks.

Shopkeepers who distribute monthly subsidized rations have been tasked with passing out copies of the constitution. But some have refused to allow the booklets in their shops, and some Iraqis have refused to take copies – fearing insurgent retaliation.

“Some people are excited to take it. Others are refusing to touch it,” said Mohammed Ali, a shopkeeper in the western Baghdad neighborhood of Saydiya who handed out about 150 copies Friday.

At least 13 people were killed in violence Friday.

• A roadside bomb hit Iraqi troops in Fallujah and insurgents opened fire on them, killing five.

• A car bomb targeting a police patrol killed two civilians and wounded seven others in Kirkuk.

• Separate shootings in the capital killed three policemen, a truck driver and another civilian. A woman died when a mortar hit her house.


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