This week, the US military was waging three large offensives in western Iraq - Operations Iron Fist, River Gate and Mountaineers - in over six towns along the Euphrates river valley.

Before Iron Fist ended on Thursday, US warplanes dropped four bombs on an abandoned three-storey hotel seized by fighters in the town of Karabilah, near the Syrian border.

Twenty fighters were killed in the bombardment, the US military said on Friday. Seven more fighters were killed when planes destroyed three buildings and two were killed in fighting in Karabilah.

At least six fighters have been reported killed in Operation River Gate.

On Friday, three Iraqis were killed and another two wounded in an attack by armed men on the car in which they were travelling in Amiriya district, west of Baghdad, Aljazeera said quoting Iraqi police sources.

Basra arrests

Meanwhile, British forces arrested 12 Iraqis in Basra in connection with recent attacks on British soldiers in the southern Iraqi city.

Aljazeera quoted local media as saying British soldiers stormed a funeral procession in the district of Maaqal in the centre of the city to make the arrests. Among those detained were the head of Basra's electricty distribution department and a police officer.

Police personnel are frequently
targeted for attack by fighters

Separately, a group calling itself Jaish al-Mujahidin in Iraq has released a videotape saying it has downed a US drone. The videotape, whose authenticity could not be confirmed, showed parts of the drone, which was said to have been shot down over Ramadi, west of Baghdad, Aljazeera reported.

Eight days before Iraqis were to go to the polls to approve or reject the new constitution, officials across the country were still waiting to get copies of the document so they can distribute them to voters to read.

Distribution began in a few neighbourhoods of Baghdad, but did not appear to have begun elsewhere.

Some shopkeepers in Baghdad refused to pass out the document and some people refused to take it, fearing reprisals by anti-government fighters determined to wreck the crucial 15 October referendum.

Fear of reprisals

"Some people are excited to take it. Others are refusing to touch it," said Mohammed Ali, a shopkeeper in the western Baghdad neighbourhood of Saydiya who handed out about 150 copies on Friday.

"I know some merchants who have refused to accept copies for distribution because they fear retaliation by the insurgents," Ali said in an interview at his shop.

Iraq's Sunni Muslim leaders want
voters to reject the constitution

Al-Qaida in Iraq and other anti-government groups have launched a wave of violence that has killed more than 290 people the past two weeks, many of the Shias in brutal bombings and shootings at a mosque, a bus and a school.

Al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has declared war on Iraq's Shia Muslim majority.

The Pentagon said on Friday the military in Iraq had intercepted a letter from the second in command of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to al-Zarqawi, urging him to to avoid bombing mosques and slaughtering hostages to avoid alienating the masses.

Marines killed

On Thursday, the last day of the six-day Iron Fist, two US marines were killed by a roadside bomb that hit their patrol outside the town of Qaim, the region near the Syrian border where the operation was being waged, the US military announced on Friday.

It said the offensive killed a total of more than 50 fighters, and that multinational forces established a new outpost in the town Sadah, where it began, to protect its citizens.

"Some people are excited to take [the constitution copy]. Others are refusing to touch it"

Mohammed Ali,
Baghdad shopkeeper

The two US deaths brought to six the number of American troops killed in Iron Fist and in River Gate, which was launched on Tuesday in the towns of Haditha, Haqlaniyah and Parwana.

The Mountaineers offensive by 500 US and 400 Iraqi forces was taking place in and around the city of Ramadi, 115km west of Baghdad.

In addition, Iraqi and US forces recently began Operation Saratoga in northern Iraq in order to improve safety in towns such as Kirkuk and Sulaimaniyah before the referendum.

Apart from those offensives, four marines were killed on Thursday by a roadside bomb in Karma, near the town of Fallujah, 65km west of Baghdad, the US military said.

The six marine deaths brought to 1950 the number of US service members who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Al-Sadr loyalists held

The British raid in Basra targeted a house and netted 12 members of The Mahdi Army, the armed force loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, said British military spokesman Major Steven Melbourne.

In London, Britain's Ministry of Defence confirmed the raid.

On Thursday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said his government suspects that Iran and Lebanon's Hizb Allah might be supplying technology and explosives to armed Shia Muslim groups operating in Iraq, but he provided no proof.

Britain suspects al-Sadr loyalists
had a hand in recent attacks

Sheikh Khalil Al-Maliki, a member of the Mahdi Army, told The Associated Press that British soldiers and tanks raided the home of police officer Ali Eliwi late just after midnight in the early hours of Friday, detaining Eliwi and 11 other Iraqis there and seizing their weapons.

"I think the reason is the recent British claim about Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs," Al-Maliki said.

British and US forces have been attacked in recent months by roadside bombs packed with "shaped charges", which are much more deadly than conventional roadside bombs.

Such attacks have killed six British troops since July, and late last month two US Army soldiers were killed when a bomb exploded near their vehicle in Shaibah, a town near Basra.

Basra incident

The arrests in Basra on Thursday night could increase tensions between the 8500 British troops in Iraq and the provincial government and people of Basra, Iraq's second largest city.

Last month, British forces used armoured vehicles to storm a Basra jail and free two of their soldiers who had been arrested by Basra police. During the raid, British forces learned that Shia Muslim fighters and police had moved the men to a nearby house.

British forces last month freed
two soldiers from Iraqi custody

The British then stormed that house and rescued them.

At least five Iraqi civilians were reportedly killed in the fighting, and Basra's provincial government responded by suspending all cooperation with British forces. It also demanded the return of the two freed British soldiers, but Britain's government has refused.

In new violence in Baghdad, at least seven Iraqi civilians were killed in shootings around the city, and at least two bodies were found dumped in locations in the capital.

Sunni Arab Muslims held a funeral for 22 Sunnis who were snatched in Baghdad nearly two months ago and whose bound and bullet-ridden bodies were found a week ago near the Iranian border.

The mourners accused government-allied fighters of killing the men.