Troops open drives to clear out gunmen from Baghdad’s flanks

1209.jpgBAGHDAD (AP) — US and Iraqi forces launched attacks on the capital’s northern and southern flanks to clear out Sunni insurgents, Al Qaeda fighters and Shiite militiamen who were chased from the capital and Anbar province during the first four months of the Baghdad security operation, military officials said Monday.A top US military official said American forces were taking advantage of the arrival of final brigade of 30,000 addition American forces to open the concerted attacks. “We are going into the areas that have been sanctuaries of Al Qaeda and other extremists to take them on and weed them out, to help get the areas clear and to really take on Al Qaeda,” the senior official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak about the operation. “Those are areas in the belts around Baghdad, some parts in Anbar province and specifically Diyala province.” Al Qaeda has proved an extremely agile foe for US and Iraqi forces, as shown by its ability to transfer major operations to Baqouba from Anbar province, the sprawling desert region in western Iraq. There was no guarantee driving the organisation out of current sanctuaries would prevent it from migrating to other regions to continue the fight.The death toll in sectarian violence Monday skyrocketed after a brief period of relative peace. At least 110 people were killed or found dead Monday, with 33 tortured bodies showing up in Baghdad alone.

The US military also announced a soldier was killed by a roadside bomb while on a foot patrol the day before in southern Baghdad. The death raised to at least 3,527 members of the US military who have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Well to the south, Iraqi officials reported as many as 36 people were killed in fierce overnight fighting that began as British and Iraqi forces conducted house-to-house searches in Amarah, a stronghold of the Shiite Mehdi Army militia.

The US military issued a statement that said at least 20 people were killed in clashes with coalition forces, without disclosing their nationality. A spokeswoman for Britain’s ministry of defence said that the British soldiers played a supporting role to Iraqi security forces during the raid and fighting.

She spoke on condition of anonymity, which is ministry policy.

The operations on Baghdad’s flanks were opened by the US 3rd Infantry Division, which has taken over dangerous Al Qaeda-infested regions to the south. The division began its drive into the Salman Pak and Arab Jabour districts on the city’s southeastern fringe over the weekend.

At the time ground forces commander Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno said US troops were heading into those areas in force for the first time in three years.

The military said in a statement Monday fighter jets dropped “four precision-guided bombs” in support of 1,200 US soldiers from the 3rd Infantry as they started moving on Al Qaeda targets.

Military officials said Multi-National Division-North forces likewise were increasing pressure on Al Qaeda sanctuaries in the verdant orange and palm groves of Diyala province and its capital Baqouba, now one of the most fiercely contested regions in Iraq.

The province is a tangle of Shiite and Sunni villages that has played into the hands of Al Qaeda and allied groups who have melted into the tense region and sought to inflame existing sectarian troubles.

Al Qaeda has conducted public executions in the Baqouba main square and otherwise sought to enforce extreme Taleban-style Islamic code. The terror organisation’s actions in the province have caused some Sunnis, Al Qaeda’s natural allies, to turn their guns on the group, with American assistance and blessing. Some Shiites are likewise joining government forces in a bid to oust the foreign fighters and Muslim extremists.

Multi-National Division-Baghdad, which has run the security operation in the capital since it began on February 14, has increased pressure on districts to the northwest of the city to cut supply and reinforcement lines from Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province in western Iraq, to the Baqouba region.

“We’re focusing up in the northwest to apply force in an area that’s been important to Al Qaeda and its associates as they move between Ramadi and Baqouba. That work together with the developing efforts to provide local security through the [Sunni] tribes in Abu Ghraib and Amariyah is putting pressure on Al Qaeda,” said Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, division spokesman.

The US military said its Baghdad force had uncovered six Iranian-made rockets Sunday in a school yard that was suspected of being a launching site against the heavily fortified Green Zone in the capital.

Some Sunni tribes, who had fought with or offered sanctuary to Al Qaeda in Anbar province, have risen up against the group and are now receiving arms and training from US forces. American military officials are trying to spread that success to Al Qaeda areas now under attack.

Prime Minister Nouri  Maliki, however, told visiting Defence Minister William Gates last week that the United States should stop arming Sunnis who may have been part of the insurgency, according to officials in his office, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to release the information. Maliki repeated that challenge in a television interview in Baghdad on Monday.

The fighting in Amarah, the US military said in a statement, was a targeted operation against what the coalition said were members of a “secret cell” that imported deadly armour-piercing weapons made in Iran known as “explosively formed penetrators”, or EFPs. The cells were also were suspected of bringing fighters from Iraq to Iran for terror training.

A doctor at Amarah’s general hospital said 36 bodies had been taken to his facility, though he could not determine how many were militiamen and how many were civilians. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to media.

More than 100 people were injured in the fighting, and at least three of those killed were Iraqi policemen, police and hospital officials said.

Coalition forces came under small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenade attacks during the raids, and called in air support, the US military statement said.

The suspects were killed by fire from aircraft, it said, without disclosing whether the forces were American or British.

Iraqi police said the Mehdi Army, the militia commanded by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, was involved in the clashes, which lasted for about two hours before dawn.

Amarah is the provincial capital of Maysan province, a predominantly Shiite region that borders Iran. Iraqi forces took over control of security from British troops there in April.

The city has seen intense militia fighting, most recently in October 2006, when the Mehdi Army briefly took control of the city and fought prolonged gunbattles with local police. At the time, Amarah’s police force was believed to be dominated by a rival militia, the Badr Brigades. More than 30 people were killed in the standoff.

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