U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a new operation Tuesday aimed at clearing al Qaeda in Iraq from the volatile Diyala province, considered the last major insurgent safe haven near the capital.
New checkpoints went up across the province - one of the hardest areas to control since the U.S.-led war began in March 2003 - and authorities banned unofficial traffic as troops searched for insurgents around the provincial capital of Baqouba, according to witnesses. Many residents said they were afraid to leave their houses.
The U.S.-backed Iraqi military is hoping to build on recent security gains from similar offensives against Sunni insurgents in the northern city of Mosul and Shiite militiamen in Baghdad and the southern cities of Basra and Amarah.
The religiously mixed area contains key supply routes to Baghdad and northern cities and has been plagued not only by attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces, but also by the kidnappings and sectarian killings that have left many of its residents - both Sunni and Shiite - living in fear.
"It is a dream for residents of this province to live in peace, away from killings and kidnappings," Fadhil Hussein, a 48-year-old man, said from central Baqouba. Khayria Hussein, a 50-year old resident, said her family was praying to "God to make this operation successful."
But Ahmed Kadim, a 35-year-old businessman in the city, criticized the decision to announce the operation in advance.
"I think this allowed armed groups to flee outside the province," Kadim said.
The troops were focusing on chasing al Qaeda and other insurgents, who have sought refuge in Diyala to escape earlier crackdowns, said Gen. Ali Ghaidan, the commander of Iraqi ground forces in the province, who announced the start of the operation.
Ghaidan said the operation's goal is "to clear Diyala from al Qaeda."
"We have a list of wanted persons that the troops will arrest during the operation," Ghaidan said.
The province sits to the north of the capital and borders Iran. Baqouba, the provincial capital, was hit by twin suicide bombings that killed at least 28 people on July 15 and has seen a number of suicide attacks carried out by women.
The military said it was an Iraqi-led operation, stressing the point as the Iraqi government is seeking to assert more control over military operations.
Similar offensives against Shiite militiamen in Baghdad and southern cities have contributed to a sharp decline in attacks. But violence has been slower to decline in Diyala and elsewhere in northern Iraq despite several military operations in recent years.
Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, who commands U.S. forces in northern Iraq, said Iraqi security forces are better prepared this time.
In Baghdad, hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims gathered around a golden domed shrine in a massive religious assembly on Tuesday, a day after three female suicide bombers struck their procession and killed 32 people.
The black-clad pilgrims were streaming toward the shrine of Imam Moussa al-Kadhim in the northern neighborhood of Kazimiyah where police imposed a tight security ring, setting up checkpoints and searching pilgrims.
Authorities have also imposed a vehicle ban in Baghdad and deployed tens of thousands of policemen in the streets in fear of further violence during Tuesday's pilgrimage.
Another suicide bombing on Monday killed 25 people during a rally in Kirkuk, 180 miles to the north, where Kurds were protesting a draft provincial elections law that would give them less power in Kirkuk.
An estimated 10,000 Kurds demonstrated in the nearby city of Irbil on Tuesday, protesting the elections law.
The U.S. military on Tuesday blamed al Qaeda in Iraq for Monday's bombings.