The US military said around 1,000 marines and Iraqi soldiers were involved in operation “Quick Strike” in the regions of Haditha, Haqliniyah and Barwanah in western Iraq, where the US military has suffered heavy casualties.
About 40 US troops have been killed in western Iraq in the last 10 days, including 14 in a single roadside bombing near Haditha, a town 270 kilometres north-west of Baghdad.
The military said the operation was an attempt to “interdict and disrupt insurgents and foreign terrorists’ presence in these regions”.
It said recent intelligence information indicated that militants were operating in these areas, adding “this morning (Friday), Iraqi forces directed an air strike on insurgents hiding in buildings outside of Haqliniyah.”
Meanwhile, Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari said that Sistani, the top Shiite cleric, had expressed willingness for a federal constitution.
“Sistani does not disagree with the principle of federalism if the Iraqi people choose it,” Prime Minister Jaafari told reporters after meeting the reclusive cleric at his home in the southern Shiite holy town of Najaf.
The comments could boost hopes of agreement among members of a committee tasked with drafting the constitution by an August 15 deadline.
Iraq’s Kurds, keen to preserve a level of autonomy within their northern territory, are insisting on a federal structure, an issue that has proved divisive for writers of the new post-Saddam constitution.
Many of Iraq’s majority Shiites and minority Sunni Arabs are worried that federalism could open the way to a breakup of the country.
Federalism and some other contentious issues were to be discussed at a national conference of top Iraqi leaders Friday in Baghdad.
But the meeting was postponed by two days because of an emergency meeting Saturday of the Kurdish autonomous parliament.
Mahmud Othman, a Kurdish member of the constitutional committee, said the delay was to permit the Kurdish autonomous parliament to discuss the charter.
“We are worried about comments from some on the committee,” said Adnan Mufti, head of the Kurdish regional parliament and senior official of Talabani’s party.
He said the Kurds were ready to endorse the charter “if all parties understand a constitution should be based on rights for all Iraqis.”
He added: “There is no way to have a unified Iraq without federalism.”
Other issues to be resolved include official languages, the relation between religion and state, the rights of women and the question of the oil-rich centre of Kirkuk, which Kurds want included in their own autonomous region.
Iraqi leaders have pledged to draft the new basic law by August 15 ahead of a referendum in mid-October, to be followed by national elections in December and the possible formation of a new government by early 2006.
The conference is due to report back by August 12, and any matters still unresolved will be put to parliament for decision by a majority vote.