U.S. forces fighting al-Qaida and allied militants intensified operations Wednesday in Baghdad and on all four points of the compass around the capital. To the south, suspected Shiite militiamen bombed three Sunni houses of worship in what may presage a war of the mosques.
An Associated Press reporter in Baqouba, the capital of Diyala province to the north and east of Baghdad, reported intense gunbattles in the streets and around the main market district as American and Iraqi forces sought to clear the city of al-Qaida fighters.
Gen. Abdul-Karim al-Rubaie, an Iraqi military commander in Diyala, told the AP that security forces had ringed the city and were not letting anyone come or go. He said many al-Qaida fighters had hidden their weapons and were trying to flee Baqouba.
“We fear that the insurgents want to mingle with civilians. ... Citizens have given us the names of hundreds of al-Qaida elements who have quit fighting and are hiding in their houses in Baqouba. These people are going to be arrested after the end of the battles,” the general said.
The latest military report on the Diyala offensive said U.S. and Iraqi forces killed at least 30 al-Qaida operatives and discovered 10 roadside bombs and four homemade bombs Tuesday, the first full day of fighting.
Iraq’s Defense Ministry said three civilians were wounded, 13 suspected al-Qaida fighters were detained and 14 roadside bombs dismantled. Troops also defused three car bombs and seized three weapons caches, it said.
Toward nightfall Wednesday, provincial police reported that a mortar round crashed into a village east of Baqouba and killed two women and two children. It was not known who fired the round.
Sunni insurgents help U.S.
The head of a Sunni insurgent group that has turned against al-Qaida in Diyala province and is cooperating with U.S. and Iraqi forces in the area said his fighters were participating in the operations and had succeeded in clearing several neighborhoods in eastern and western Baqouba.
The group leader, who declined to be identified for fear of retribution, spoke as his fighters linked arms, chanted and danced. Women ululated in celebration. An AP reporter also saw residents in the Mustafa area in western Baqouba serving food to the former insurgent fighters. Other residents began repairing their shops.
The U.S. military said it has 10,000 American soldiers in Diyala province, an al-Qaida bastion, a troop strength that matched in size the force that American generals sent against the insurgent-held city of Fallujah 2½ years ago.
With all of the nearly 30,000 additional troops ordered to Iraq by President Bush now in place, the military said the massive operations on Baghdad’s flanks were “a powerful crackdown to defeat extremists” and named the combined offensives “Operation Phantom Thunder.”
Pushes to south, west
In what appeared to be the second largest assault, an estimated 2,500 U.S. soldiers were pushing into districts south and southeast of the capital. They killed four insurgents, detained more than 60 others and destroyed 17 boats, “significantly disrupting insurgent operations on the Tigris River,” the military said.
West of Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi forces were engaging insurgents and al-Qaida elements in more rural areas, the military said. “These operations are helping to interdict the enemy along the belts between Baghdad, Fallujah, Ramadi and the cities of the Western Euphrates River Valley.”
The military has reported using mortars, artillery, helicopters and fighter jets in support of ground forces in Baqouba and elsewhere.
In a renewed blow to stability Wednesday, suspected Shiite militants blew up three Sunni mosques south of Baghdad, causing heavy damage but no casualties. The bombings were apparently revenge strikes for a suicide truck bombing a day before that badly damaged an important Shiite mosque in the heart of the capital. At least 87 died in that attack.
Police said suspected Shiite militiamen detonated a bomb inside a Sunni mosque in Haswa, 30 miles south of Baghdad, at about 1 a.m. About six hours later, militants struck again at mosque near Hillah, 60 miles south of the capital. A third Sunni mosque was attacked and damaged in an explosion in Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad; that mosque was first attacked last week.
Police officials who reported the bombings spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution.
The attackers near Hillah also targeted the imam’s house near the mosque, but the cleric fled when he saw them coming, according to the police.
The Sunni mosque bombings appeared to be retribution for Tuesday’s suicide truck bombing against the Shiite Khulani mosque in central Baghdad — the deadliest single attack in Iraq in two months.
At a joint briefing with a U.S. military spokesman, Brig. Qassim al-Mousawi, of the Iraqi army, said the truck was carrying about 50 cooking gas cylinders and about 1,100 pounds of TNT.
Al-Mousawi said the truck bomb was prepared in the nearby Sheik Omar industrial zone and that the Iraqis had no checkpoints on roads between there and the mosque.
Police initially said the bomb was hidden in a truck piled high with electric fans and air conditioners.
Nationwide, police and morgue officials said 60 people died in sectarian-related violence, 32 of them bodies found in Baghdad. Most showed signs of torture.
The U.S. military spokesman, Rear Adm. Mark Fox, acknowledged “an increasing pattern of attacks” against Baghdad’s Green Zone, a day after a mortar barrage against the heavily fortified area sent soldiers and contractors scrambling for cover.
Fox declined to provide details on the number of attacks against the Green Zone, also known as the International Zone, which houses the U.S. and British embassies as well as Iraqi government buildings on the west bank of the Tigris River.
“It’s clear that there is an attempt to get lucky shots and there is unquestionably an increasing pattern of attacks here against the International Zone. There’s no doubt about that,” he said.
At least one mortar or rocket could be heard exploding in the zone Wednesday.
Battles also continued south of Baghdad between Iraqi security forces and Shiite militiamen loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Four soldiers were killed and a Humvee was burned in nearly two hours of fighting in the Shiite town of Numaniyah, 75 miles southeast of Baghdad, police said. The fighting erupted hours after five other Iraqi soldiers were killed and three were wounded by a roadside bomb in the mainly Sunni town of Madain, on the southeastern outskirts of Baghdad.
Farther south, the U.S. military said three militants had been killed, including a senior leader of al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, and 45 detained after two days of clashes in Nasiriyah, about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad. Iraqi police and hospital officials put the casualty toll at 35 killed and 150 wounded.
A British soldier died Wednesday after an attack on a military facility in the southern city of Basra, the British defense ministry said in London.