U.S. forces launched a new offensive yesterday against insurgents in an area south of the capital after militants ambushed an elite Iraqi police unit in a Baghdad neighborhood...

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — U.S. forces launched a new offensive yesterday against insurgents in an area south of the capital after militants ambushed an elite Iraqi police unit in a Baghdad neighborhood known for its loyalty to ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, killing 29 people, most of them civilians.

The militants set off a huge explosion in the staunchly Baathist neighborhood of Ghaziliya as a contingent of special police and national guards were about to raid a house late Tuesday after receiving an anonymous tip. The blast killed 22 civilians and seven officers, and damaged a dozen nearby homes, a police spokesman said.

Between 1,700 to 1,800 pounds of explosives were used in the blast, a U.S. military statement said. American and Iraqi troops searched the rubble for survivors through the night and rescued one civilian.

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It was not immediately clear whether any of the casualties were guerrillas who appeared to have lured the police into the building. The area is a predominantly Sunni Muslim neighborhood where support for Saddam has traditionally been strong.

The fighting in the area dubbed the “triangle of death” came as an insurgent group which claimed responsibility for the Dec. 21 suicide bombing of a U.S. base near Mosul — in which 22 people were killed — warned Iraqis not to take part in parliamentary elections scheduled for next month.

“We also warn everyone to keep away from all military targets, whether they were bases, American Zionist patrols, or the forces of the pagan guard, and police,” Ansar al-Sunnah said.

The group is believed to be composed mainly of Sunnis and has focused on targeting Americans and those viewed as collaborating with them. It has avoided outright civilian targets.

The latest warning followed Monday’s audiotape statement from al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden urging Iraqis to boycott the elections and praising attacks against Americans and those who cooperate with them.

President Bush denounced bin Laden’s appeal, saying the Jan. 30 election marks a crossroads for Iraq.

“The stakes are clear in this upcoming election,” Bush said at his Texas ranch. “It’s the difference between the ability for individuals to express themselves and the willingness of an individual to try to impose his dark vision on the world, on the people of Iraq and elsewhere. It’s very important that these elections proceed.”

Insurgents have intensified their strikes against the security forces of Iraq’s U.S.-installed interim government as part of a continuing campaign to disrupt the elections for a constitutional assembly.

Government troops are supposed to protect polling stations, and the insurgents’ strategy — which includes attacking police stations, checkpoints and patrols — appears aimed at demonstrating that the security forces are incapable of handling the job.

Brig. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, assistant commander of the 1st Cavalry Division that controls Baghdad, said yesterday that U.S. troops had begun a major anti-insurgency operation south of Baghdad, focused on areas such as around Mahmoudiya, a town about 25 miles south of the capital.

U.S. and Iraqi forces have come under repeated attacks by car bombs, rockets and small-arms fire in the area. The latest operation followed a weeklong campaign there in November and early December to root out insurgents.

U.S. commanders had hailed the November offensive to retake Fallujah as a major tactical victory, but violence elsewhere in Iraq has only escalated since the fall of the main insurgent bastion 40 miles west of Baghdad. The vast majority of the estimated 6,000 guerrillas based there apparently slipped out to northern Iraq and the area south of Baghdad, which includes Mahmoudiya.

“We believe that many insurgents that left Fallujah settled throughout areas in Baghdad and specifically in the southern sector of Baghdad and north of Babylon,” Hammond said.

Top U.S. commanders have acknowledged that the insurgent offensive is expected to continue at least until the elections.

Mosul insurgents, who routed the city’s police and national guard in November and now battle American troops for control of the city, struck again yesterday afternoon with a coordinated attack on a U.S. outpost, involving two car bombs and a direct armed assault.

Witnesses said an explosives-rigged fuel truck exploded around 4 p.m. outside a house that had been used as a field outpost by U.S. troops in recent weeks. Capt. Phil Ludvigson, a U.S. military spokesman in Mosul, said soldiers responding to the first explosion were attacked by a second car bomber. The soldiers then came under attack by an armed force of as many as 50 insurgents with automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars.

U.S. troops called in airstrikes in response, and an estimated 25 insurgents were killed in the ensuing battle and 15 U.S. soldiers were wounded, Hastings said.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s interim government sought to boost the efficiency of its security forces by merging of its 35,000-man paramilitary National Guard and the nascent armed forces. The move appeared to be an effort to streamline Iraq’s security apparatus ahead of the elections and bring its forces under centralized command.

Also yesterday, Iraq’s deputy prime minister Barham Saleh said Saddam will likely be brought to trial early next year, though no date has been announced.

Information about the fighting in Mosul is from the Los Angeles Times.