U.S. Military Presses Attack On Al Qaeda

Suspected al Qaeda members are escorted in an Iraqi army base in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, June 20, 2007. AP

U.S. forces fighting al Qaeda and allied militants intensified operations Wednesday in Baghdad and on all four points of the compass around the capital. Suspected Shiite militiamen bombed three Sunni places of worship south of the capital 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 gun battles in the streets and around the main market district as American and Iraqi forces sought to clear the city of al Qaeda fighters.

CBS News' Phil Ittner is traveling with an advance unit of the U.S. Army in the Baqouba area. He reports that the group has come across numerous booby-trapped improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in their house-to-house searches for al Qaeda insurgents.

Some of the IEDs were hidden in houses. The unit Ittner is traveling with called in an air strike on one house believed to be holding such a weapon. Amid the rubble, a second blast crater was seen; evidence that an IED had been waiting inside.

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 Qaeda fighters had hidden their weapons and were trying to flee the city.

"We fear that the insurgents want to mingle with civilians (trying to leave). ...Citizens have given us the names of hundreds of al Qaeda 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.

In order to trap as many al Qaeda fighters as possible, the U.S. military kept the exact timing of the operation secret, telling their Iraqi allies it wouldn't begin for another 48 hours, reports CBS News national security correspondent David Martin. But that didn't eliminate the danger.

"The problem with this neighborhood is they have it so well defended with deep IEDs at pretty much every intersection," Sgt. Caleb Duncan told CBS News.

The latest military report on the Diyala offensive said U.S. and Iraqi forces had killed at least "30 al Qaeda operatives, and discovered four IEDs (homemade bombs) emplaced in houses, and 10 buried IEDs (roadside bombs)" on Tuesday, the first full day of fighting.

Iraq's Defense Ministry said three civilians had been wounded, 13 suspected al Qaeda fighters were detained and 14 roadside bombs dismantled. Three car bombs also were defused and three weapons caches seized.

Toward nightfall Wednesday, provincial police reported 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.

The head of a Sunni insurgent group that has turned against al Qaeda 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 Associated Press 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 Qaeda bastion. The troop strength 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 U.S. President George W. 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."

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 city, where they killed four insurgents and detained more than 60. "In addition, 17 boats were destroyed, significantly disrupting insurgent operations on the Tigris River," the military said.

In other developments:

  • While the U.S. military searches for a soldier missing in Iraq, kidnapped by insurgents possibly allied with al Qaeda, his wife back home in Massachusetts may be deported by the U.S. government. Army Spec. Alex Jimenez, who has been missing since his unit was attacked by insurgents in Iraq on May 12, had petitioned for a green card for his wife, Yaderlin Hiraldo, whom he married in 2004.

  • Battles 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 clashes in the Shiite town of Numaniyah, 77 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.

    • Amy Clark

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