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A renewed push in Diyala

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Times Staff Writer

Under cover of darkness Tuesday, American soldiers crept across a bridge where just days before insurgents had left a chilling warning: a severed head with a message identifying the Iraqi victim as a U.S. collaborator scrawled across the forehead with a black marker.

Through the biting cold, the troops crunched down a winding gravel road, past frost-glazed reeds, empty storefronts and spacious homes surrounded by orange and pomegranate trees. Inside, anxious families told them about the masked gunmen who have ruled their lives, less than a mile away from where the U.S. military has maintained a small outpost in recent months.

About 4,000 U.S. and Iraqi forces, backed by warplanes and attack helicopters, swept into the northern Diyala River valley overnight in the opening salvo of the latest effort to flush the Sunni Arab militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq and its affiliates out of their havens across the nation, the U.S. military said.

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U.S. and Iraqi officials have touted major successes in the last year, aided by the deployment of 28,500 additional U.S. troops and the decision of tens of thousands of Sunni tribesmen to fight the insurgents they once supported. Violence against civilians and military targets nationwide has dropped 60% since June, according to U.S. figures. But a spate of deadly suicide bombings, including one Monday that killed at least 14 people in Baghdad, has raised fears that bloodshed is on the rise again.

U.S. commanders have repeatedly warned that Al Qaeda in Iraq, a mostly local group that the military says is foreign-led, remains a dangerous foe.

“What we want to do . . . is put a stake in it and be done,” said Brig. Gen. James Boozer, the deputy commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq.

But before the offensive began late Monday, he received reports that 50 to 60 senior insurgent leaders holed up northwest of Muqdadiya had fled, confirming a long-standing pattern: When U.S. and Iraqi forces attack, the insurgents drop their weapons and blend into the civilian population.

Boozer said the targets may have been tipped off by heightened activity that preceded the operation, but added that the military had positioned forces to help determine where the insurgents had gone. Iraqi officials also have been hinting for weeks that a push was imminent.

“Working closely with the Iraqi security forces, we will continue to pursue Al Qaeda and other extremists wherever they attempt to take sanctuary,” said Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, in a statement announcing the nationwide effort. “We are determined not to allow these brutal elements to have respite anywhere in Iraq.”

U.S. commanders estimated that about 200 lower-level militants remained in the encircled area, known as the breadbasket of Iraq, a place of isolated hamlets, citrus orchards and date palm groves that has rarely been penetrated by U.S. and Iraqi forces.

Bomb blasts hit at least three U.S. vehicles, injuring three soldiers in one of them. U.S. soldiers had to leverage a prefabricated bridge over a large gash in the road to get their vehicles across. There were also brief exchanges of gunfire.

U.S. forces fired Hellfire missiles at a group of insurgents believed to have triggered one of the bombs, killing one and injuring three. Iraqi commandos detained three other suspects, and four weapons caches were found. But U.S. soldiers said it was a quieter start than they had expected.

Although violence in northern Iraq had declined by about 40% since June, the region accounts for more than 40% of the attacks nationwide. Of the 4,749 incidents reported in December, 2,014 took place in the north compared with 1,146 in Baghdad and 808 in Anbar province, according to military figures.

The insurgents appear to be concentrated in Diyala and around the northern city of Mosul. Others have flowed into Salahuddin and Tamim provinces, the military says.

Diyala, an agriculturally rich province stretching north and east from Baghdad to the Iranian border, is home to an explosive mix of 25 major tribes, including Sunni and Shiite Arabs as well as Kurds. Thousands of former officers of Saddam Hussein’s army live here.

Al Qaeda in Iraq declared the provincial capital, Baqubah, the center of its self-styled Islamic caliphate. Its leader, Abu Musab Zarqawi, was killed in a U.S. airstrike outside the city in June 2006.

With the additional troops, U.S. forces last year were able to regain control of Baqubah, neighborhood by neighborhood. But U.S. commanders acknowledge that scores of fighters escaped the dragnet and regrouped 20 miles away in Muqdadiya and the Diyala River valley. From these sanctuaries, they continued to unleash attacks in the provincial capital, most aimed at Iraqi security forces and the former insurgents fighting alongside them.

When a company from the U.S. Army’s 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, rolled into Muqdadiya in September to reinforce a U.S. Cavalry battalion, it found the roads were laced with bombs and houses were rigged to explode. Four soldiers in the Stryker company were killed by blasts in the first 48 hours in the city, three of them from suicide attacks.

“There is no doubt they [the insurgents] controlled it before we came in,” said the company’s former commander, Capt. Eric McMillan. “It was a hard fight.”

As the rest of the battalion arrived, U.S. forces pushed through the city, sending the insurgents across a canal into the Diyala River valley. For months, at least two platoon-sized groups of skilled fighters sparred with the U.S. troops.

Security has gradually returned to Muqdadiya, which reflects the province’s ethnic and religious diversity. Stores and schools have opened, and crowds fill the main market. Shiite parts of the city are plastered with banners and brightly colored flags marking an upcoming religious festival.

Crucial to the turnaround was the recruitment of more than 1,000 Sunni and Shiite volunteers, many of them former militants, who now run checkpoints and military safe houses across the city.

It is these volunteers, dubbed “concerned local citizens,” who are now the focus of the insurgents’ most deadly attacks. The grieving mother of two slain insurgents killed at least 16 people in Muqdadiya when she blew herself up at one of the safe houses Dec. 7. U.S. forces have also recovered at least five severed heads in the last week, most bearing messages on the foreheads.

U.S. forces hope to recruit more allies as they push through the northern Diyala River valley, searching for fighters, weapons, training facilities and other institutions of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq. They also plan to establish two new outposts to provide a continued U.S. and Iraqi military presence in the region, quickly followed by development aid.

In Sinsil village, residents wrapped in blankets against the cold weather told soldiers Tuesday that they had lived for more than a year under the authority of a Sharia court that enforces a harsh form of strict Islamic law, handing out death sentences for even minor infractions. Smoking and drinking are banned, and women have been required to wear an all-enveloping black robe that leaves only a slit for their eyes.

Masked gunmen kidnapped at least 60 people from the village, one family said. Many never returned. The family welcomed the arrival of the Americans, but worried about what would happen when they left.

“Maybe the masked men will come; we don’t know,” Rasheed Khalaf Khadreesh said.

His fears were underscored by shots fired at soldiers as they prepared to leave his house. U.S. snipers on the roof responded with a loud volley of gunfire.

Elsewhere in Iraq on Tuesday, a suicide bomber dressed as a woman infiltrated a national police checkpoint in Madaen, southeast of Baghdad, killing one officer and wounding three, government officials said. Police said that two officers had died and nine were injured.

In the Yarmouk neighborhood in the western part of the capital, gunmen planted a bomb in the car of a city council member, killing him and injuring two people.

And in southeast Baghdad, insurgents gunned down an Interior Ministry officer.

The U.S. military reported the killing of three suspected insurgents and the arrests of 28 others in operations in central and northern Iraq.

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

Times staff writer Kimi Yoshino in Baghdad contributed to this report.


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