BAGHDAD - Insurgents launched a brief assault west of Baghdad, firing mortar rounds and rockets at a US base and local government buildings, the day after Washington unveiled its new strategy for victory in Iraq.
Residents said heavily armed men wearing masks attacked a US garrison in the centre of Ramadi, a rebellious city 110 km west of Baghdad, and fired on nearby council offices before seizing several streets.
Leaflets were distributed saying al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al Zarqawi, was taking control and promising that "Iraq will be a graveyard for the Americans and their allies". But after a couple of hours most of the militants dispersed and the city returned to relative calm.
The US military, which together with Iraqi forces launched a new operation in the area round Ramadi on Wednesday, played down the assault.
"Reports of insurgents taking control of Ramadi are completely unsubstantiated," Marines Captain Patrick Kerr said in an emailed statement. "There have been a few sporadic small-arms engagements, but nothing out of the ordinary."
Ramadi, the capital of semi-lawless Anbar province, is a base of the Sunni Arab-led insurgency. After US forces crushed Falluja in an offensive in November last year, many insurgents moved west to Ramadi and other Euphrates river towns.
In the new US-Iraqi operation, more than 2,000 soldiers and Marines were sent into Hit and surrounding towns on Wednesday to track down militants and try to restore security before parliamentary elections on December 15.
Residents of Hit demonstrated against the US offensive on Thursday, complaining about excessive force and calling on foreign troops to leave their city, local police said.
It was the latest in a string of such operations over the past five months in one of Iraq's most dangerous regions. Zarqawi is believed to be based in the Euphrates river valley, stretching to the Syrian border.
US commanders have said they expect a surge in guerrilla violence in the run-up to the polls, as was seen before elections in January and a nationwide referendum in October.
In Baghdad, gunmen wounded an adviser to Iraq's defence minister and killed one of his bodyguards on Thursday in an attack on his convoy, police said. Police sources said the adviser, Saad al-Obeidi, and two other guards were wounded.
Over the past two weeks more than 200 Iraqis, most of them civilians, have been killed in suicide blasts and car bomb attacks, mainly targeting the Shi'ite Muslim majority.
That would appear to be an attempt to sow ever deeper discord between Iraq's main Muslim sects and push the country closer to full-blown civil war -- one of Zarqawi's stated aims.
The assault in Ramadi came only hours after US President George W. Bush unveiled details of his strategy in Iraq, saying his plan for victory involved intensified training of Iraqi security forces so that they can fight insurgents on their own and US troops can go home.
That has been the plan for the past year, but under intense pressure at home to justify the war, Bush fleshed out the White House's thinking, while also reiterating that he would set no timetable for withdrawal.
"I will settle for nothing less than complete victory," Bush said in a speech that drew a terse response from opposition Democrats, some of whom are pushing for a quick withdrawal.
Washington has about 155,000 troops in Iraq, increased from 135,000 over recent months to improve security before the polls.
Two US soldiers were killed in separate incidents in Iraq on Wednesday, raising to at least 2,110 the number of soldiers, Marines and sailors to have died since the war began.
Bush plans a series of speeches before Iraq's election in an effort to show US forces are succeeding.
Despite his optimism the situation in Iraq remains extremely precarious. As well as sustained insurgent bombings and shootings, hostage-taking has returned in the past week.
Since last Friday, five foreigners have been snatched in Baghdad, including four Christian aid workers -- two Canadians, a Briton and an American. All four were shown in an insurgent video broadcast by Al Jazeera television two days ago.
A fifth hostage, a German archaeologist who has worked in Iraq for more than a decade, was shown in a separate video broadcast by German television. Her captors threatened to kill her and her driver unless Berlin stopped cooperating with Iraq's US-backed interim government.
Today, an Iraqi insurgent group posted a video on the internet showing what appeared to be a man being shot.
The Army of Ansar al-Sunna video, whose authenticity could not be verified, said the man was an Iraqi special forces member linked to an Interior Ministry bunker where 170 malnourished and sometimes badly beaten men and teenagers were held.
The Interior Ministry dismissed the deputy responsible for probing ministerial corruption and abuses.
Nouri al-Nouri was fired on November 28, a ministry official said, nearly two weeks after the discovery of the bunker.