By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 21, 2007
BAGHDAD, June 20 -- U.S. and Iraqi forces continued targeting Sunni insurgents in the city of Baqubah north of Baghdad on Wednesday, the second day of a major new offensive aimed at stamping out the Sunni extremist group al-Qaeda in Iraq.
About 10,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops are participating in the new offensive, called Arrowhead Ripper, which began early Tuesday in Diyala province, a mixed Sunni-Shiite-Kurdish province north and east of Baghdad that, in recent months, has become a stronghold of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the most violent area in the country outside of the capital. Forty-one insurgents and one American soldier were killed in two days of fighting, the U.S. military said Wednesday.
"We have found three warehouses and factories where car bombs cars were built, as well as large stashes of TNT and mortar rounds used to make" roadside bombs, said Mohammed al-Askari, an Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman. "We also found the swords that they used to slaughter people in their so-called courts, in addition to sniper rifles and silencers."
The U.S. military said in a statement that five weapons caches had been found and that 25 roadside bombs and five booby-trapped houses had been discovered and destroyed.
A U.S. military spokesman, Lt. Col. Christopher C. Garver, said the military was investigating the mistaken bombing of a house in the Khatoon neighborhood of Baqubah on Wednesday. The incident occurred when soldiers decided to destroy a heavily booby-trapped residence with an aircraft bomb, but the bomb hit the wrong house, Garver said. He said it was unknown whether there were any casualties in the strike. Later, a helicopter destroyed the targeted house with a Hellfire missile, and there were large secondary explosions, Garver said.
Askari said that the offensive "has developed greatly" and that U.S.-led forces were starting a "second phase by surrounding and isolating the areas in which the terrorists are located."
The U.S. military has been sharply criticized -- particularly from within its own ranks -- for earlier offensives against al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni insurgents that allowed them to slip away and regroup in other areas. As soon as U.S. forces withdrew, the insurgents typically returned.
This time, military planners are trying to avoid that outcome by drawing a tight ring around Baqubah that locks insurgents inside, where they can be captured or killed. The challenge was illustrated Tuesday by the capture of six uninjured men who were trying to escape from Baqubah in an Iraqi ambulance, the U.S. military said in a statement.
Commanders "said we need to cordon off the city and control access in and out, which is what we did yesterday morning, and now we are very deliberately doing house-to-house clearing," said Capt. Jon Korneliussen, a U.S. military spokesman. "Many houses were wired with explosives."
Lt. Col. Fadhil Mahmoud, commander of the 4th Battalion of the Iraqi army's 2nd Brigade, which was working with U.S. forces to clear al-Qaeda in Iraq insurgents in western Baqubah, said that the city of 300,000 people was under curfew and that all passageways in and out had been sealed.
Mahmoud said Sunni fighters from a variety of insurgent groups that have fought U.S. forces in the past -- including the Islamic Army and the 1920 Revolution Brigades -- were now working closely with U.S. and Iraqi forces in the offensive, helping them identify al-Qaeda in Iraq members and facilities. The fighters, operating under an umbrella group called the United Jihad Factions Council, have been issued special insignias to distinguish them from al-Qaeda in Iraq members, he said.
Elsewhere, three Sunni mosques north of the town of Hilla were bombed in apparent retaliation for recent attacks on Shiite shrines, said Capt. Muthana Ahmed of the Babil provincial police. The Interior Ministry raised the death toll from Tuesday's suicide truck bombing outside the Shiite al-Khilani mosque in Baghdad to 87, with more than 200 injured.
A group of eight Christian students was abducted in the northern city of Mosul on Wednesday, according to Mosul police Brig. Gen. Abdul Karim al-Jibouri. There has been a rash of attacks and kidnappings involving Christians in recent weeks.
Other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.