BAGHDAD — U.S. and Iraqi forces struck insurgent strongholds in the northern city of Mosul today, trying to reestablish control over a city where rebels have festered and overtaken local police.
Regional authorities have ordered all four bridges closed into Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city. U.S. and Iraqi troops also began taking back police stations in west Mosul, a military spokeswoman said.
"We are in the process of securing all of police stations and returning the police to these stations to put in place a strong police presence," said Capt. Angela Bowman, of Task Force Olympia.
She said of west Mosul: "We are now moving through the neighborhood."
One U.S. soldier died today after coming under indirect fire on a convoy near Balad, the U.S. military said. The death brings to 39 the number of American troops killed in nine days of fighting in Fallouja, west of Baghdad.
In fierce battles on Monday, more than 25 people were killed and dozens were wounded in attacks northeast of Baghdad as the insurgency continued to roil Sunni Muslim areas of Iraq.
Insurgents struck hardest in the city of Baqubah and neighboring areas, storming police stations, taking over the streets and engaging in fierce gun battles with U.S. troops.
American forces called in warplanes and dropped two 500-pound bombs in Baqubah.
The city was the second to erupt after U.S. troops launched attacks on Fallouja, a rebel stronghold. Last week, Mosul suffered widespread violence as insurgents took over police stations, attacked the governor and closed down bridges over the Tigris River.
The attacks were similar in Baqubah, where masked gunmen seized police stations and public squares. The insurgents also took over the neighboring town of Buhriz.
They used missiles and rocket-propelled grenades to attack a U.S. military base at the Baqubah airport. An American convoy passing through the west of the city was attacked, and a vehicle was destroyed.
U.S. commanders believe that a number of insurgents escaped Fallouja and have relocated throughout central Iraq. Others have apparently escaped to Ramadi and Baqubah.
"It was critical to take out Fallouja because it was a sanctuary," said Maj. Gen. Richard Natonski, commander of the 1st Marine Division. "This was the location where the insurgents could refit, rearm and launch their attacks from. That's now been denied to them. So in effect, what we've done is placed them on the run."
Militants now seem to be emerging in force in Baqubah, in Nineveh and Babil provinces and in other areas that ring Fallouja, officials said.
"They're coming to north Babil. We know that some have gone north," said Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who ended a two-day visit to Iraq on Monday.
Myers expressed confidence that the guerrillas' recent movement would make them easier to track.
"They've had to relocate," he said. "They're moving and they'll make mistakes, and we're prepared to take advantage of that."
The cities under attack are in turmoil. Five policemen were killed in the Baqubah area Monday; one officer, in Buhriz, was the deputy chief of police and was gunned down in his home.
Even before nightfall, Baqubah's streets were empty and shops were closed. U.S. forces withdrew to their bases. Iraqi police and national guardsmen stayed close to their stations rather than patrol or set up checkpoints.
Two ambulances were stolen from the Baqubah hospital and some of the medical staff appeared to have been abducted with their cars, said Dr. Mohammed Ziad, the hospital director. "I am afraid that the [ambulances] might be used as car bombs," he said.
Rebels also set fire to oil wells and a pumping station, shutting down exports from the north, officials said.
In Mosul a suicide bomber plowed into a U.S. convoy, injuring two soldiers.
Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said Monday that the leader of a militant group involved in many attacks had been arrested.
Allawi identified the group as Jaish Muhammad, or Muhammad's Army. He said its leader, Moayad Ahmed Yaseen, was in custody. The group is believed to have links to deposed President Saddam Hussein's military and intelligence services and to have cooperated with Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab Zarqawi. Allawi said it was responsible for killing a number of Iraqis and foreigners in Iraq, sometimes by beheading.
Two female relatives of Allawi kidnapped last week were released Monday. A third relative, a man, remained in custody.
Government officials said Monday that they believed the chaos was waning.
Asked in a lengthy interview on Al Arabiya television if Monday's reopening of the Baghdad airport and border crossings with Jordan and Syria meant that the country was now safe, Allawi replied: "On balance it is safe, but we expect there will be some problems here and there. But comparably there is a higher degree of safety" since the U.S.-led offensive in Fallouja.
Allawi also sought to dispute allegations by aid groups and some journalists that there was a humanitarian crisis in the refugee camps around Fallouja and in the city. He promised that families would receive compensation and that "there will be a permanent committee in Fallouja for reconstruction."
He said a delegation of tribal elders and others would meet today with senior government officials in Baghdad to discuss the return of the families who had fled before or during the battle.
At a separate news conference, interim Interior Minister Falah Nakib described brutal attacks by insurgents, including an incident in Mosul in which militants abducted a wounded policeman from the hospital and hung pieces of his dismembered body in a public square.
"What type of people would be willing to take part in such activities? What kind of people would try to urge his fellow citizens against those who are serving them?" Nakib said. He also said 1,000 policemen had died at the hands of insurgents.
But the police have had successes, officials said. Gen. Abdul Razzaq, who works with the Baghdad police, said they had been able to arrest about 1,500 gang members responsible for theft, kidnappings and slayings.
Times staff writer John Hendren at Camp Victory, near Baghdad, and a special correspondent in Baqubah contributed to this report.