US-led forces swept hotspots in a "triangle of death" yesterday in a push to reclaim rebel enclaves ahead of key January polls, as more than 200 political groups threw their hat in the electoral ring.
The launch of the huge operation in the notorious area south of Baghdad on Tuesday came as the international community threw its weight behind the tight timetable for Iraq's first post-Saddam Hussein elections.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the US would add an unspecified number of troops to its forces in Iraq and beef up Iraqi forces ahead of the Jan. 30 vote.
Some 5,000 American, British and Iraqi forces took part in Operation Plymouth Rock that began with raids on villages north of the city of Hilla, the capital of the province of Babylon, the US military said.
The massive coalition force looked set yesterday to make its way northwards to the lawless areas blocking access to the capital.
The towns of Latifiyah, Yusufiyah, Mahmudiyah and Iskandariyah lie inside the triangle of death, an area where Sunni Muslim rebels have carried out strings of deadly attacks in recent months.
The operation came hot on the heels of a massive assault on Fallujah, the largest since last year's US-led invasion. The city had been under insurgent control since April and its recapture was seen as essential to organizing the promised January elections.
Most of Fallujah's 300,000 inhabitants had fled the city before the assault began Nov. 8, but as a few rebel pockets are still to be brought under control, humanitarian needs inside the city remain unknown.
An Iraqi Red Crescent team set off from Baghdad for Fallujah but it was unclear how much access it would be granted to the devastated city.
Iraq was meanwhile pressing ahead with preparations for the elections.
More than 200 Iraqi political parties have been approved for participation in the polls, electoral commission chief Abdel Hussein al-Hindawi said.
With the deadline for presenting full electoral lists only a week away, parties and organizations were in the final stages of discussions to form alliances ahead of the official launch of the campaign on Dec. 15.
In January, Iraqis will elect 275 deputies to a national assembly, as well as 51 members of the Baghdad provincial council and 41 members for each of 17 other regional councils.
It would be the country's first free and multi-party ballots since 1954.
World powers and Middle Eastern states, in a rare show of unity, on Tuesday threw their weight behind the electoral process.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, speaking at an international conference on Iraq in Egypt, termed the vote critical to quell the violence in Iraq.
The chronic insecurity gripping Iraq was "the greatest impediment to a successful transition process," he said in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
His stand was enshrined in a declaration that was endorsed not only by the US but also by regional foes Iran and Syria, and by critics of the Iraq war, including China, France and Russia.
More than 60 Sunni Arab factions have threatened to boycott the polls because of what they see as the heavy-handed US crackdown on insurgents in Fallujah.