Ramadi, Feb. 20 (Reuters): US Marines and Iraqi troops set up checkpoints and imposed an 8 pm to 6 am curfew on the rebellious Sunni city of Ramadi today, part of a nationwide effort to restore order after last month's election.
It was not clear if the troops of the 1st Marine expeditionary force and Iraqi soldiers, launching Operation River Blitz, would carry out a larger offensive on Ramadi, 110 km west of Baghdad, which has essentially been in guerrilla hands for most of last year.
The operation follows suicide bombings on Shias, killing at least 50, while they were marking Muharram, the most important day in the Shia religious calendar.
The attacks are believed to have been the work of Sunni militants determined to foment sectarian division among Iraqis and drive the country towards civil war. Most Sunnis rejected last month's elections that handed power to the country's 60 per cent Shia majority.
Time magazine cited Pentagon and other sources as saying that US diplomats and intelligence officers were conducting secret talks with Sunni insurgents on ways to end the fighting.
The Bush administration has said it would not negotiate with Iraqi fighters and there is no authorised dialogue but the US is having 'back-channel' communications with certain insurgents, unidentified Washington and Iraqi sources told the magazine.
The White House had no immediate comment on the report.
Ramadi ' a city of several hundred thousand people ' Falluja and the whole of Iraq's vast western Anbar province, which stretches to the borders with Jordan and Syria, have been a hotbed of the insurgency over the past 18 months.
'Operation River Blitz is designed to target insurgents and terrorists who have attempted to destabilise the Anbar province by terrorizing the populace through wanton acts of violence and intimidation,' the US military said in a statement.
'We were asked by the Iraqi government to increase our security operations in the city to locate, isolate and defeat anti-Iraqi forces and terrorists,' said Major General Richard Natonski, commander of the 1st Marines expeditionary force.