17 Insurgents Killed Near Baqubah
Saturday, June 23, 2007
BAGHDAD, June 22 -- U.S. and Iraqi forces continued a new offensive against the Sunni extremist group al-Qaeda in Iraq in and around the city of Baqubah on Friday, killing 17 insurgents in a helicopter attack, but a senior U.S. military commander said it appeared that most of the group's leaders had already escaped.
Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the No. 2 commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said Thursday after meeting with battalion commanders that senior al-Qaeda in Iraq leaders had apparently fled as American soldiers launched the offensive earlier in the week, according to the Associated Press.
"We believe 80 percent of the upper-level leaders fled, but we'll find them," AP quoted Odierno as saying on a one-day trip to Baqubah, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. "Eighty percent of the lower level-leaders are still here."
The comments suggest that the new offensive, dubbed Arrowhead Ripper, may not achieve one of its principal goals. U.S. officials have emphasized that a major focus of the campaign was to surround Baqubah with a tight cordon so insurgents could not escape. Previous offensives against al-Qaeda in Iraq and other groups have led to only limited, temporary gains because fighters slipped away to regroup and then returned after U.S. troops withdrew.
Another important difference between this offensive and earlier ones, according to U.S. military officials, is that after clearing Baqubah of insurgents, U.S. commanders do not intend to abandon it; rather, it is expected that a force composed mainly of Iraqi troops will hold the city.
Brig. Gen. Mick Bednarek, assistant commander for operations with the 25th Infantry Division, said in an interview with news agencies that the several hundred al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters who remain are "a hard-line group of fighters who have no intention of leaving." Military officials say they expect the offensive to last 30 to 60 days.
"It's 24-7 for us here, and it's probably the same for our adversary as well," Bednarek said. "It's house to house, block to block, street to street, sewer to sewer. And it's also cars, vans -- we're searching every one of them."
The battle came Friday to the town of Khalis, about 10 miles northwest of Baqubah. U.S. forces saw a group of al-Qaeda in Iraq gunmen attempting to avoid Iraqi police patrols and infiltrate Khalis from the southwest, according to a U.S. military statement. It said U.S. attack helicopters fired missiles at the group, killing 17 of the fighters and destroying one of their vehicles.
With those deaths, at least 68 suspected al-Qaeda operatives have been killed in the offensive, according to the U.S. military's tally. A statement Friday said 20 suspected insurgents had been detained, seven weapons caches discovered, 21 roadside bombs destroyed and nine booby-trapped structures demolished.
Meanwhile, the military reported Friday that a U.S. soldier was killed Thursday during combat operations in southwest Baghdad.