Hundreds of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers descended on the remote northern city of Tal Afar near the Syrian border on Tuesday, launching a major operation against insurgents following weeks of attacks against Iraqi security services there, military officials said.
Tuesday's attacks in northern Iraq appeared coordinated and aimed at checkpoints manned by members of Iraq's fledgling army, which has been a constant target of insurgents opposed to the country's new U.S.-backed government.
The first explosion, caused by a roadside bomb, rocked Hawija, about 40 miles southwest of Kirkuk, at around 9:30 a.m. Soon after, three suicide bombers waiting in lines of cars at army checkpoints to the west and north of Hawija struck in quick succession.
In the deadliest attack, 10 civilians and one soldier were killed at a checkpoint in Dibis, two miles west of Hawija, army Lt. Faleh Ahmed said. Three soldiers and two civilians were killed at a checkpoint in Bagara, three miles west of Hawija. Two soldiers died in a suicide attack on the Aziziya checkpoint at the northern entrance to Hawija.
"I was standing some distance from the checkpoint when I heard a big explosion and I was thrown onto the ground," Lt. Sadiq Mohammed 26, whose right leg was wounded in the Dibis attack, said from his hospital bed. "This is a terrorist act because real resistance should only target American troops, not Iraqis trying to protect their country."
In other developments:
The Tal Afar offensive is targeting "terror suspects" responsible for multiple attacks on civilians, U.S. Army spokesman Sgt. John Franzen said.
Eyewitnesses said U.S. helicopters were flying overhead as tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles patrolled its narrow streets, regularly coming under small arms fire from militants. Tal Afar police Capt. Amjad Hashim said about 20 suspected insurgents had been captured.
Hashim also claimed insurgents fired an anti-aircraft rocket at a U.S. helicopter, striking it and making it return to its base. Franzen said an American OH-58 two seat reconnaissance helicopter suffered "mechanical difficulties" but was unaware if it had come under enemy attack.
The Tal Afar operation comes a day after U.S. and Iraqi military commanders met with nearly 80 local tribal elders and agreed to "work together to end violence" and rebuild the ancient city's police and local government services, the military said in a statement.
More than 860 people have died during the less than six-week period since Iraq's new Shiite-led government was announced.
But Iraqi and U.S. officials maintain that a high-profile counterinsurgency offensive in Baghdad, dubbed Operation Lightning, has helped curb the number of attacks in the capital, where multiple suicide car bombings and drive-by shootings have become a sinister part of daily life.
The operation, which began May 22, is the biggest Iraqi-led offensive since Saddam's ouster two years ago. Before it began, authorities controlled only eight of Baghdad's 23 entrances. Now all are under government control.
At least 887 arrests have been made during the operation, according to government figures, and 608 mobile and 194 permanent checkpoints have been established around Baghdad.
Sunni Arab Islamic extremists opposed to the new Shiite-led government and former Saddam Hussein loyalists, who lost their positions of power following the former dictator's ouster, are believed to be major players in the rampant insurgency.
The influential Sunni group, the Association of Muslim Scholars, on Tuesday condemned Operation Lightning, saying it was targeting members of the minority and fueling sectarian tensions. The government has acknowledged some mistakes have been made during the operation.
"We tried to reduce tension, but the government took another path. What is being done by the army during the raids and the arrests is only enhancing the culture of hatred," said association spokesman Abdel-Salam al-Qubeisi.
Some Iraqi officials believe that the imminent trial of Saddam, perhaps within two months, may further lessen the violence.
Saddam is facing about 14 cases ranging from gassing thousands of Kurds and suppressing a Shiite uprising to executing religious and political foes during his 23-year reign.
The man who once ruled Iraq with an iron fist will likely take the stand behind a bulletproof glass dock in a custom-made court room, reportedly being built inside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.