January 10, 2008
New Operation Targets Sunni Strongholds
By RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr. and STEPHEN FARRELL
ARAB HAMADAH, Iraq â€” In one of the deadliest stretches for American troops in months, militants killed nine soldiers in the volatile Sunni Arab heartlands north of Baghdad on Tuesday and Wednesday as the military began its third offensive in a year to dislodge Sunni guerrillas from sanctuaries deep within the lush farmlands and palm groves of Diyala Province.
Six of the American soldiers were killed Wednesday at an unspecified location in Diyala in part of the offensive when insurgents detonated a large bomb hidden in a house. Four other soldiers were wounded, and an interpreter of unknown nationality was killed.
A military spokesman later confirmed that the explosion had occurred while the soldiers were clearing a building.
The military did not release further information, but in Diyala, northeast of Baghdad, house bombs have long been a staple weapon for Sunni fighters who try to lure soldiers inside booby-trapped buildings. Another house rigged to explode was discovered in the Diyala village of Khan Bani Saad on Sunday. Warplanes destroyed it with bombs.
Three American soldiers were killed Tuesday in neighboring Salahuddin Province, where fighting has been fierce recently between Sunni extremists and Sunni militiamen who have allied with American forces.
The attacks were another sign that insurgents remained very strong in the Sunni-dominated cities and countryside north of Baghdad.
Sixteen Americans have died already this year, mostly north of Baghdad, and Sunni militants have carried out devastating attacks in Diyala against Sunni militiamen who recently joined forces with American troops.
The U.S. military also reported that at least two dozen insurgents have been killed in the two day old operation dubbed "Phantom Pheonix", which aims to uproot Al-Qaeda In Iraq militants from several provinces. A further ten insurgents were captured according to military sources.
Five severed heads were found on a road near the provincial capital, Baquba, on Monday. The killers used blood to scrawl a gruesome warning in Arabic across the foreheads: Join the American-backed militias â€œand you will end up like this.â€
While the Diyala insurgents have been striking at American soldiers and their Sunni militia allies, the commander of American ground troops in northern Iraq acknowledged on Wednesday that many of the militants who were the focus of the new offensive had fled in advance, possibly after being tipped off.
â€œIâ€™m sure thereâ€™s active leaking of communication,â€ said the northern commander, Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling.
Encountering insurgent booby traps but few evident insurgents, troops in armored Stryker units advanced through the Diyala River Valley on Wednesday during the second day of the offensive. Soldiers passed through deserted streets on patrols aimed at driving extremist Islamist factions from their strongholds north of Baquba.
Speaking to reporters in Baghdad, General Hertling identified unsecured Iraqi Army communications as a possible reason the insurgents targets had managed to slip through the net, as may have happened before an offensive in Baquba last June. He noted that the Iraqi forces relied on unsecured cellphones and radios.
However, General Hertling said forces would continue to hunt Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the homegrown Sunni insurgent group that the American military says is led by foreigners.
He described the Diyala offensive as part of a wider operation to kill or capture the groupâ€™s fighters across the country. General Hertling said that in his northern command, 24,000 American troops, 50,000 Iraq soldiers and 80,000 Iraqi police officers were now involved in the hunt. He said that in Diyala Province, 20 to 30 of the groupâ€™s fighters had been killed since the start of the current operation.
Planners said before the operation that the Diyala Valley was a stronghold for extremist groups, including Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the Islamic State of Iraq and Ansar al-Sunna.
But as soldiers of Company I, Third Squadron, Second Stryker Cavalry Regiment moved in from the north on the second day of the offensive, they found little sign of the 200 or so insurgents thought to be operating there.
In villages near the insurgentsâ€™ supposed nerve center, residents confirmed that carloads of armed and masked men operated freely until recently. Some residents said the gunmen left after being alerted to the operation by increased helicopter traffic.
The American troops say they believe that some insurgents remained, in part because residents reported that one car bomb was planted on the morning the offensive began. They say they also suspect that some residents know more than they disclose but are too intimidated to speak, at least until American and Iraqi forces show they are going to remain in the area.
Near the village of Arab Hamadah, the Stryker unit discovered an Islamist leaflet bearing a photograph of an attack on an Iraqi government checkpoint and threatening to â€œkill anyone working with the Iraqi Army, the police and the American forces.â€
It also warned residents not to become part of the Awakening, the Sunni tribal movement that has turned against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and begun cooperating with the Americans, providing neighborhood watch patrols that are increasingly the targets of insurgents.
As the Americans moved through vineyards and canals, First Lt. David Moore said the dense vegetation posed the greatest threat.
â€œNone of us is afraid of the firefights, the guns and all that,â€ he said. â€œIt is the deep-buried stuff that you canâ€™t see.
â€œI donâ€™t think we have lost anybody from our company in a firefight; we have only lost people from explosions.â€
But even before news emerged of Wednesdayâ€™s deadly attack, officers voiced fears that as they penetrated deeper into insurgent strongholds, the threat of house bombs would increase.