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:
West of Baghdad U.S. and Iraqi forces were "engaging insurgents and al Qaeda elements in more rural areas. These operations are helping to interdict the enemy along the belts between Baghdad, Fallujah, Ramadi and the cities of the Western Euphrates River Valley."
The military has reported using mortars, artillery, helicopters and fighter jets in support of ground forces in Baqouba and elsewhere.
In a renewed blow to stability Wednesday, suspected Shiite militants blew up three Sunni mosques south of Baghdad, causing heavy damage but no casualties. The bombings were apparently revenge strikes for a suicide truck bombing a day before that badly damaged an important Shiite mosque in the heart of the capital. At least 87 died in that attack.
Police said suspected Shiite militiamen detonated a bomb inside a Sunni mosque in Haswa, 30 miles south of Baghdad. About six hours later, militants struck again at mosque near Hillah, about 60 miles south of the capital. A third Sunni mosque was attacked and damaged in an explosion in Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad. The mosque was first attacked last week.
Police officials who reported the bombings spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution.
The attackers near Hillah also targeted the imam's house near the mosque, but the cleric fled when he saw them coming, according to the police.
The Sunni mosque bombings appeared to be retribution for Tuesday's suicide truck bombing against thein central Baghdad. It was the deadliest single attack in Iraq since April 18, when at least 127 civilians were killed when a car bomb ripped through a largely Shiite market place in central Baghdad.
At a joint briefing with a U.S. military spokesman, Brig. Qassim al-Mousawi, of the Iraqi army, said the truck was carrying about 50 cooking gas cylinders and about 1,100 pounds of TNT.
Al-Mousawi said the truck bomb was prepared in the nearby Sheik Omar industrial zone and the Iraqis had no checkpoints on roads between there and the mosque.
Police initially said the bomb was hidden in a truck piled high with electric fans and air conditioners.
The U.S. military spokesman, Rear Adm. Mark Fox, acknowledged "an increasing pattern of attacks" against the Green Zone, a day after a mortar barrage against the heavily fortified area sent soldiers and contractors scrambling for cover.
Militants fired a volley of mortars into the Green Zone, which houses the U.S. and British embassies as well as Iraqi government houses on the west bank of the Tigris River, officials said Tuesday. The U.S. Embassy said no casualties were reported, but the attack was the latest in what has become a nearly daily occurrence despite stringent security measures aimed at protecting the area.
Fox declined to provide details on the number of attacks against the Green Zone, which is also known as the International Zone, but said they were increasing.
"It's clear that there is an attempt to get lucky shots and there is unquestionably an increasing pattern of attacks here against the International Zone. There's no doubt about that," he said.
At least one mortar or rocket could be heard exploding in the zone Wednesday.