U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a major operation to strike against al-Qaida in Iraq and other extremists, the U.S. military said Tuesday, hoping to build on a recent reduction of violence and push militants from their strongholds.
The division and brigade-level operation, dubbed Phantom Phoenix, will cover the entire country, the military said.
U.S. and Iraqi forces will “continue to pursue al-Qaida and other extremists wherever they attempt to take sanctuary,” Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, said in a statement announcing the start of the joint operation. “We are determined not to allow these brutal elements to have respite anywhere in Iraq.”
Violence across Iraq has fallen dramatically in recent months, an improvement attributed to a combination of 30,000 extra troops sent into the Baghdad area; the work of U.S.-backed predominantly Sunni tribal groups who turned against al-Qaida in Iraq; and a cease-fire declared by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr for his Mahdi Army militia.
Focus on Diyala province
Extremists have been pushed out of their former stronghold in Anbar province west of Baghdad to the east and north, and appear to be concentrated in the province of Diyala to the northeast of the capital and in Mosul to the north.
“Al-Qaida in Iraq is attempting to regain strength and establish new support areas in northern Iraq,” said Lt. Col. James Hutton, a spokesman for the U.S. military.
Few details were given on the operation, which will go beyond military activities and focus as well on providing basic services and improving local governance and economic life for Iraqis, the statement said.
Despite the general reduction of violence, attacks against civilians, members of U.S.-backed armed groups mainly known as “awakening councils,” and Iraqi security forces continue to kill scores.
On Monday, a double suicide bombing in Baghdad’s northern Azamiyah district killed 12 people and wounded 28, including former police Col. Riyadh al-Samarrai, a key leader of the local awakening group.
That attack came days after Osama bin Laden condemned the new American allies in an audiotape released Dec. 29, and said they would “suffer in life and in the afterlife.”
The switch of allegiance by insurgents in Azamiyah was one of the most significant in a series of similar moves across Baghdad’s Sunni neighborhoods. Azamiyah is home to Iraq’s most revered Sunni shrine, the mosque of Imam Abu Hanifa, and many in the area served as officers in Saddam Hussein’s army and security agencies.
Al-Qaida worried about losing Sunni support?
U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner said last week the recent attacks were the “clearest indication” that al-Qaida in Iraq — believed to consist mainly of Iraqis but to have foreign leadership — was worried about losing the support of its fellow Sunni Arabs.
Monday’s bombing occurred at the entrance of a Sunni Endowment office, a government agency that cares for Sunni mosques and shrines, and near an Awakening Council office in Azamiyah, which had been a stronghold of Sunni insurgents and a safe haven for al-Qaida in Iraq.
Sunni Endowment leader Ahmed Abdul Ghafur al-Samarrai — who is from the same tribe as the former colonel — blamed bin Laden for the attack.
“Those criminal gangs fled from al-Anbar province to Azamiyah neighborhood for bloodshed and to abuse the dignity of the people,” he said.
On Tuesday, banners erected by the local awakening council bearing words of condolence hung on walls and at intersections in Azamiyah. A three-day funeral was planned for al-Samarrai.
In a separate attack, police said Tuesday that gunmen kidnapped eight members of a newly-formed U.S.-backed Shiite armed group in northern Baghdad’s Shaab neighborhood, one of the capital’s most dangerous areas and a center for outlawed Shiite fighters.
The men were manning a checkpoint when they were kidnapped Monday night, a police officer told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information. Last Sunday, the head of the group, Sheik Ismaiel Abbas, was shot to death in Shaab.
Elsewhere in the capital Tuesday, the head of the municipality of Baghdad’s primarily Sunni neighborhood of Yarmouk was killed when a bomb attached to his car exploded, a police officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information.
To the south, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives at a checkpoint manned by police special forces in the Madain area, about 15 miles southeast of Baghdad, killing two members of the special forces and wounding five people, police said.