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Iraqi, Marine Forces capture 15 in early hours of pre-election offensive

Forward Operating Base Kalsu, Iraq
-- Iraqi Security Forces and U.S. Marines rounded up 15 suspected insurgents south of Baghdad on Jan. 19, beginning a fresh offensive aimed at disrupting insurgent activity ahead of national elections later this month.

Operation Checkmate kicked off with a pre-dawn raid near Jabella, about 50 miles south of the capital. Six CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters ferrying the joint strike force -- composed of elements of the Iraqi special weapons and tactics team, the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit's Force Reconnaissance platoon and U.S. Army troops -- swarmed the target, a crop of houses believed to shelter a number of militants and a stockpile of weapons and munitions.

Of two dozen military-age men initially questioned, 15 were detained, including a suspected former intelligence officer in Saddam Hussein's regime. The raid force, joined by an additional team of Marines called in to assist in the search, also uncovered a small weapons cache, including 11 rifles and shotguns and 1,500 rounds of ammunition.

In the coming days, more such raids are planned, as intelligence gleaned from one mission drives follow-on operations.

Despite a recent drop in insurgent activity in the area, the commander of pro-Iraqi forces in northern Babil Province said he has no intention of letting local militants regroup.

"When we have an enemy on the run, especially a determined one, we can't afford to stand around admiring our progress," said Col. Ronald J. Johnson. "We have to stay in the attack."

Johnson said Iraqi forces will take the lead in providing security during the upcoming elections.

"We have worked with our Iraqi partners to put together a solid plan," he said. "The Iraqis will be in front, confident and aggressive. We will be in support, ready to reinforce. And the Iraqi people will get the best opportunity possible to vote in a real election for the first time in their lives."

Release #050119q



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