BAGHDAD — U.S. and Iraqi forces launched attacks on Baghdad’s northern and southern flanks to clear out Sunni insurgents, al-Qaida fighters and Shiite militiamen who had fled the capital and Anbar during a four-month-old security operation, military officials said Monday.
A top U.S. military official said American forces were taking advantage of the arrival of the final brigade of 30,000 additional U.S. troops to open the concerted attacks.
“We are going into the areas that have been sanctuaries of al-Qaida and other extremists to take them on and weed them out, to help get the areas clear and to really take on al-Qaida,” the senior official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the operation. “Those are areas in the belts around Baghdad, some parts in Anbar province and specifically Diyala province.”
Al-Qaida has proven to be an extremely agile foe for U.S. and Iraqi forces, as shown by its ability to transfer major operations to Diyala’s provincial capital of Baqouba from Anbar province, the sprawling desert region in western Iraq. There is no guarantee that driving the organization 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 111 people were killed or found dead nationwide, with 33 bodies of torture victims showing up in Baghdad alone.
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 Mahdi Army militia.
The U.S. military issued a statement that said at least 20 people were killed in clashes with coalition forces. A spokeswoman for Britain’s Ministry of Defense said British soldiers played a supporting role to Iraqi security forces during the raid and fighting in Amarah. She spoke on condition of anonymity, which is ministry policy.
The operations on Baghdad’s flanks were opened by the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, which has taken over dangerous al-Qaida-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.
Approaching dangerous territory
At the time, ground forces commander Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno said U.S. troops were heading into those areas in force for the first time in three years.
The military said in a statement Monday that fighter jets dropped “four precision-guided bombs” in support of 1,200 U.S. soldiers from the 3rd Infantry as they started moving on al-Qaida targets.
Military officials said Multi-National Division-North forces likewise were increasing pressure on al-Qaida sanctuaries northeast of the capital in the verdant orange and palm groves of Diyala, 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-Qaida and allied militants who have melted into the tense region and sought to inflame existing sectarian troubles.
Al-Qaida has conducted public executions in the Baqouba main square and otherwise sought to enforce an extreme Taliban-style Islamic code. The terror organization’s actions in the province have caused some Sunni militants, al-Qaida’s natural allies, to turn their guns on the group with American assistance and blessing. Some militant 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 Feb. 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, to the Baqouba region.
“We’re focusing up in the northwest to apply force in an area that’s been important to al-Qaida 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-Qaida,” said Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, division spokesman.
Change in loyalty
Some Sunni tribes, which had fought with or offered sanctuary to al-Qaida in Anbar province, have risen up against the group and are now receiving arms and training from U.S. forces. American military officials are trying to spread that success to al-Qaida areas now under attack.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, told visiting Defense Secretary Robert 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. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information. Al-Maliki repeated that position in a television interview in Baghdad on Monday.
The fighting in Amarah, the U.S. military said in a statement, was a targeted operation against what the coalition said were members of a “secret cell” that imported deadly armor-piercing weapons made in Iran known as “explosively formed penetrators,” or EFPs. The cells were also suspected of bringing militants 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 authorized to talk to media.
More than 100 people were wounded in the fighting, and at least three of those killed were Iraqi policemen, according to police and hospital officials.Video: Pre-dawn gunbattle
Coalition forces came under small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenade attacks during the raids, and called in air support, the U.S. 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 Mahdi Army, the militia commanded by radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, was involved in the clashes, which lasted for about two hours before dawn.
City plagued by militia fighting
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 Mahdi Army briefly took control 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.
Elsewhere in Iraq, CBS News reported Monday that U.S. soldiers last week discovered two dozen emaciated boys at a government-run orphanage for special needs children in central Baghdad — some tied to cribs and covered in their own feces. The soldiers said they found shelves filled with food and new clothes still in their plastic wrapping in the facility, according to the report.
Two security guards were arrested on al-Maliki’s orders, but the caretaker of the orphanage and two female employees have disappeared, CBS reported. The children were all moved to another orphanage in the city, the report said.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.