Air Strikes Kill 17 Iraq Al Qaeda Fighters

An Iraqi soldier secures an area in Baqouba, Iraq, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, Thursday, June 21, 2007.
AP Photo/Talal Mohammed
Hundreds of U.S. and Iraqi troops, under cover of F-16s, fought their way into three neighborhoods of besieged Baqouba on Friday to help clear Diyala province of entrenched insurgents. To the north of the city, American helicopters killed 17 al Qaeda gunmen trying to sneak past a checkpoint.

As the 10,000-troop mission to take back the volatile and extremely dangerous province intensified in its fourth day, so have concerns about keeping al Qaeda fighters on the run. The terrorist fighters and their allies already have been run out of Fallujah and Ramadi in Anbar province, only to regroup in Diyala's capital of Baqouba and surrounding districts.

The U.S. ground forces commander, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, said more than three-quarters of Baqouba's al Qaeda leadership fled before the Americans moved into the city this week. At the time, drone observer planes spotted fighters planting dozens of roadside bombs on the main highway into Baqouba.

Brig. Gen. Mick Bednarek, assistant commander for operations with the 25th Infantry Division, estimated that several hundred low-level al Qaeda fighters remained.

"They're clearly in hiding, no question about it. But they're a hardline group of fighters who have no intention of leaving, and they want to kill as many coalition and Iraqi security forces as they possibly can," Bednarek said Friday.

"It's 24/7 for us here, and it's probably the same for our adversary as well," he said. "It's house-to-house, block to block, street to street, sewer to sewer — and it's also cars, vans — we're searching every one of them."

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's government is also under threat from within. After dozens of interviews with Iraqi political leaders both inside and outside the government, it's clear a broad-based movement is underway to bring down al-Maliki, reports CBS News chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan.

Called the "Iraq Project," the movement's manifesto outlines a plan to overthrow al-Maliki using constitutional means: a no-confidence vote in the Iraqi parliament that will force the prime minister to resign.

In other developments:

  • Intelligence agencies have come to an ominous conclusion: Al Qaeda fighters in Iraq who slip away are ready to expand their fight to Europe and the Gulf, CBS News correspondent Sheila MacVicar reports.
  • The U.S. military reported another American soldier killed, raising to at least 16 the U.S. death toll over the past three days.
  • In Fallujah, a suicide attacker wearing an explosives vest struck a police patrol, killing two officers.
  • A British soldier was wounded Friday when a roadside bomb struck a convoy in the southern port city of Basra, the British military said.

    An Associated Press employee in Baqouba reported heavy fighting as U.S. troops swept into three eastern neighborhoods in Friday's operation, which began after U.S. forces warned residents to leave or stay indoors.

    The American military said the 17 al Qaeda fighters were killed trying to flee past Iraqi security blockades on the road to Khalis, a predominantly Shiite city northeast of Baqouba.

    Earlier this week, creeping house-to-house through western Baqouba, U.S. soldiers made a startling discovery: a suspected al Qaeda field hospital stocked with oxygen tanks, heart defibrillators and other medical equipment.

    The find displayed al Qaeda's sophisticated support network in Baqouba, a mostly Sunni town of about 300,000 people, located 35 miles north of Baghdad.

    That may presage great problems in an outright defeat of al Qaeda even if U.S. forces succeed in ousting the group from Baqouba. The city has received little aid or other services from the central government, which feared supplies would end up in al Qaeda hands.

    As the al Qaeda field hospital proved, much assistance did bypass residents and found its way to the terrorist organization. Until trust is mended, U.S. military commanders say, any success they have in this offensive could be lost on a city unable or unwilling to reconcile sectarian differences.

    Historically a mixed province, Diyala has become predominantly Sunni as Shiites fled an influx of Sunni militants from Anbar province. The militants were welcomed by many of Saddam Hussein's former Baath party members.

    The shifting population balance only increased tension between local Sunni tribal leaders and the Shiite-dominated federal government in Baghdad.

    "There are a multitude of systematic functions that aren't working," said Maj. Robbie Parke, 36, of Rapid City, S.D., a spokesman for the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. "The Iraqi government has to say, `Look, Baqouba is in trouble, and we need to help.'"

    So far that has not happened, U.S. officials say. But there are signs of hope.

    "The (Iraqi) government is very immature, but they're getting better and saying the right things. We've got to hold them to that," said Odierno.