U.S. strikes insurgents outside of Baghdad

BAQUBA, Iraq -- The U.S. military on Monday began a major attack against Sunni insurgent positions in the capital of Diyala province, part of a larger operation aimed at blunting the persistent car and suicide bombings that have terrorized Iraqis...

BAQUBA, Iraq -- The U.S. military on Monday began a major attack against Sunni insurgent positions in the capital of Diyala province, part of a larger operation aimed at blunting the persistent car and suicide bombings that have terrorized Iraqis and thwarted political reconciliation.

The assault by more than 2,000 U.S. troops is unusual in its scope and ambition, representing a more aggressive strategy of attacking several insurgent strongholds simultaneously to tamp down violence throughout the country.

It reflects an acknowledgment that as fresh infusions of U.S. troops focused on Baghdad in recent months, insurgents moved their bases outside the city. The goal, commanders said, was to break the cycle of sectarian killings and retribution that has swept Iraq.

The fighting is expected to be hard. In recent months, Diyala has emerged as a center of the Sunni Arab insurgency as al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia and other groups have made it their deadliest base of operations, supplanting Anbar province. Violence in Anbar dropped after Sunni Arab tribes joined forces with Americans to drive out al-Qaeda fighters.

American military officials say Diyala province is now home to as many as 2,000 fighters who have flocked there from throughout the country, not only from Anbar but also from Mosul and, since the security crackdown, Baghdad.


But American commanders say the Baquba insurgents, a mix of former members of Saddam Hussein's army and paramilitary forces, embittered Sunni Arab men, criminal gangs and al-Qaeda Islamists, are increasingly well-trained and highly disciplined. In the past year or more, the militias have terrorized the mixed Sunni and Shiite population, wiping out Shiite families and turning the city into a ghost town.

The tense political situation in Baquba and surrounding Diyala province, which is north and east of Baghdad, has been further inflamed over the past year by Shiite-dominated militias, some of whom had infiltrated the security forces and persecuted Sunni Arabs. They proved ill-prepared to take on the insurgents.

The Baquba operation is being led by the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, with support from units from two other brigades. The American troops are either directly involved in the assault or in supporting efforts on the flanks, along with aircraft and artillery.

The attack aims to cut off the western portion of Baquba, where the commander of the brigade, Col. Steve Townsend, said 300 to 500 al-Qaeda fighters are believed to have been operating. After cordoning off the section, U.S. forces will begin the dangerous and painstaking process of clearing the city, which is still occupied by thousands of civilians.

Iraqi security forces will have a role in securing the western section of the city after it has been captured by U.S. troops, but are not involved in the initial assault.

The al-Qaeda and insurgent strongholds in Baquba are strongly defended, according to American intelligence reports. The insurgents' defenses include enormous buried bombs that are powerful enough to destroy or disable an armored vehicle. Combat engineers recently cleared a main road in Baquba of17 roadside bombs in a stretch of a little under a mile, Townsend said. Of those, 14 were disarmed and three exploded but did not cause casualties.

Houses are believed to have been rigged with explosives, and enemy fighters -- including snipers -- are believed to have set up machine gun nests.

In what appeared to be a separate operation deep in the south near the Iranian border, a ferocious battle between U.S. troops and Shiite militants left at least 20 people dead and wounded scores more, Iraqi and American officials said.


The clashes, in Amarah and Majjar al-Kabir, a pair of mostly Shiite towns just north of Basra, started early on Monday. They were sparked by raids on what American officials described as a secret network involved in transporting "lethal aid" from Iran to Iraq, particularly deadly roadside bombs.

Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, an American military spokesman in Iraq, said American troops have intensified their focus on finding and dismantling places where these weapons are built, such as the towns raided on Monday, because the weapons were especially hard to stop at the border.

According to officials aligned with Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Basra, the fighting involved members of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. The battle appeared to be the largest clash with al-Sadr's loosely affiliated gunmen since the start of the new American security plan in February.

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