Blast Kills 6 as Troops Hunt Iraqi Insurgents

By Amit R. Paley and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 10, 2008

FORWARD OPERATING BASE NORMANDY, Iraq, Jan. 10 -- The explosion of a booby-trapped house killed six American soldiers on Wednesday during an offensive against Sunni insurgents in Diyala province, making it the deadliest day for U.S. troops in Iraq since November.

The blast, which also killed an Iraqi interpreter and injured four U.S. soldiers, took place on the second day of an unusually large campaign in Diyala against the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq. Three U.S. troops were shot to death Tuesday in the neighboring northern province of Salahuddin.

The U.S. military is struggling to exert control over northern Iraq, where Sunni insurgents have fled during the past year after being driven out of Baghdad and Anbar province to the west. In addition to this offensive, commanders here are hoping to recruit local Sunnis into U.S.-backed volunteer forces that have successfully countered al-Qaeda in Iraq in other parts of the country.

U.S. commanders expected the fight in Diyala, part of a nationwide campaign against al-Qaeda in Iraq sanctuaries, to be particularly fierce. But most of the 200 fighters they expected to find here appear to have either escaped or successfully blended in with the local population.

Lt. Col. Rod Coffey, commander of the squadron leading the charge into the insurgent sanctuary, known as the Bread Basket, estimated that the fighters would make their last stand in the town of Himbuz. U.S. soldiers said that when they entered the town Wednesday afternoon, it appeared to have emptied of insurgents.

At a news conference in Baghdad, the top U.S. military commander in northern Iraq, Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, acknowledged that the insurgents had not put up "the major defense that we initially thought."

"We have some areas that we're still very interested in where we think the enemy has withdrawn to," he added, "and we're continuing to pursue."

The attack on U.S. troops took place west of Himbuz around noon. According to initial reports received by commanders on the ground, the house had been searched by U.S. forces about 10 days ago and cleared of weapons. Before the recent offensive, insurgents were seen returning to the house at night and doing construction work.

The house, which had a "for sale" sign on it, was apparently ringed with explosives, some of which were contained in drums, according to the initial reports. The blast was so forceful that it caused most of the structure to collapse. Some of the soldiers were buried in the rubble and had to be pulled out.

Insurgents in Diyala have previously booby-trapped houses to target U.S. soldiers.

Early Wednesday, before the blast, a radio briefing for battalion commanders warned that al-Qaeda in Iraq would employ "deep-buried" bombs in previously cleared areas.

"The closer we get to Himbuz, the more we may encounter deep-buried IEDs," Coffey said, using the abbreviation for improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs.

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