By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
BAGHDAD, July 29 -- U.S and Iraqi forces launched a new offensive in the restive province of Diyala, targeting Sunni insurgents who have turned lush farmlands northeast of Baghdad into one of the toughest regions to pacify since the U.S.-led invasion.
On Tuesday morning, the Iraqi military tightened security around Baqubah, the provincial capital, imposing an indefinite vehicle curfew. Iraqi soldiers and police searched houses but faced no resistance, Iraqi military officials said.
The Iraqi government is hoping to build upon previous offensives in the southern cities of Basra and Amarah and the northern city of Mosul, which U.S. and Iraqi officials have said show that Iraq's security forces are prepared to handle security responsibilities on their own.
Diyala, which contains key commercial routes to Baghdad and northern areas, could prove a bigger challenge. Fighters have attacked U.S. and Iraqi forces there, as well as U.S.-backed Sunni Awakening groups made up of former insurgents. Female suicide bombers have targeted tribal leaders, and kidnappings are common in the province, where both Sunnis and Shiites live.
"The goal of the operation is to seek out and destroy criminal elements and terrorist threats in Diyala and eliminate smuggling corridors in the surrounding area," the U.S. military said in a statement, stressing that it was an Iraqi-led operation.
Gen. Ali Ghaidan, the top Iraqi commander in the province, told reporters that the offensive's main target was the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, as well as Shiite militiamen who sought haven in the province after previous offensives.
"This operation doesn't have a timetable," Ghaidan said. "It will continue until we destroy al-Qaeda, the militias and the outlaws in the province."
Residents welcomed the offensive, calling it long overdue.
"We hope this operation will be 100 percent successful. We hope it will be the death blow for al-Qaeda and the militias that want to destroy the province," said Salma Abbas, 54, a government employee.
Meanwhile, in Baghdad, hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims marched to the gold-domed Imam al-Kadhim shrine in the Kadhimiyah neighborhood to commemorate the death of one of Shiite Islam's most revered figures.
The worshipers gathered around the shrine, beating their chests and heads, a day after three female suicide bombers targeting pilgrims killed 32 people and injured scores.
On Tuesday, thousands of Kurds protested a controversial elections bill in the northern city of Irbil, a day after 25 people were killed in a bombing and ethnic clashes in Kirkuk as they demonstrated against the proposed legislation.
Special correspondent Qais Mizher in Baghdad and Washington Post staff in Baqubah contributed to this report.