Iraqi forces swept through Baghdad on Sunday, erecting checkpoints and searching vehicles as they launched the largest offensive of its kind since Saddam Hussein”s ouster, but insurgents hit back with suicide bombings and ambushes that killed at least 21 people, including a British soldier.
The first of more than 40,000 soldiers and police, who are being supported by U.S. forces, searched hundreds of vehicles and raided several houses, described as "terrorist dens" in Baghdad”s Dora neighborhood, arresting several suspects, army Capt. Ihssan Abdel-Hamza said.
Operation Lightning was launched as a direct challenge to the bloody wave of militant attacks that have killed more than 700 people since the April 28 announcement of Iraq”s new Shiite-led government, according to an Associated Press count.
"We set up these checkpoints in order to arrest all those insurgents trying to destroy this country and we will hit them with an iron fist," said Iraqi army Sgt. Ali al-Khazali while manning a highway checkpoint in Dora.
But insurgents defied the offensive, launching a series of coordinated attacks in western Baghdad as well as the southern and northern outskirts of the capital.
Iraqi security forces, who are being supported by U.S. forces, will erect 675 checkpoints to try to deter assailants around the city and in areas where attacks are frequent, and begin street-to-street sweeps.
Baghdad will be divided into two sectors, Karkh on the west bank of the Tigris river that separates the city, and Risafa on the east. Karkh would be divided into 15 sub-districts and Risafa into seven sub-districts. Police and emergency personnel will operate 24 hours a day.
It was not known how long the Operation Lighting would last, and its success or failure would be an indication of how long it would take for Iraqis to take control of their own security, a key part of the U.S. exit strategy from Iraq.
In western Baghdad, insurgents attacked two police stations, an Iraqi army barracks and a checkpoint within 30 minutes in the Abu Ghraib, Amariyah and Khadra neighborhoods, killing three civilians and wounding 15 people, including 10 Iraqi security forces, police officials said.
About 50 gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and machine guns at Baghdad”s police Major Crime Unit in Amariyah at about 3:30 p.m. in a half-hour battle.
Several minutes later, a car bomb exploded at a nearby Amariyah army barracks and an Iraqi military-controlled checkpoint in Abu Ghraib, the focus of a recent Iraqi-U.S. military operation, dubbed Operation Squeeze Play, a prelude to the current offensive that that aimed at ridding the volatile area of militants.
About 4 p.m., gunmen attacked Khadra police station during a 15-minute firefight, police Lt. Majid Zaki said.
The Iraqi government said the offensive would continue despite the violence.
"With the escalating operations by security forces, we expect such reactions coming to the surface, but this will have no affect on the operations," Laith Kuba, spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, said during a press conference.
Separately, the U.S. military announced the end of Operation New Market, a four-day offensive centered on Haditha, 140 miles northwest of Baghdad, aimed at disrupting insurgent activities. At least 14 insurgents were killed and more than 30 suspects detained in the operation, which also left two U.S. Marines dead.
Some of the insurgents in Haditha were believed loyal to Iraq”s most-wanted militant, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose fate has been the subject of intense discussions this week from Baghdad to the Internet to Washington amid reports that he has been wounded.
Britain”s The Sunday Times reported that al-Zarqawi left the country after being wounded in a missile attack and was thought to be in Iran. The paper said it obtained the information from an unidentified senior insurgent commander with close contacts to al-Zarqawi”s group. Tehran denied that al-Zarqawi was in Iran.
U.S. forces also announced Sunday that a Marine was killed when a roadside bomb struck his vehicle the day before near Haqlaniyah, 90 miles northwest of Baghdad. At least 1,656 U.S. military members have died since the Iraq war began in March 2003, according to an AP count.
The British soldier died and four others were injured when a British military convoy came under attack in southern Iraq, the Ministry of Defense said in London.
The bulk of Britain”s 8,500-strong military deployment is based in southern Iraq, including at the main British headquarters in Basra, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad. The death brought to 88 the number of British troops killed since the start of the Iraq war.
A suicide attacker tried to ram a Volkswagen sedan packed with explosives through the gate of the heavily fortified Iraqi Oil Ministry in eastern Baghdad, ministry spokesman Assem Jihad said. Guards fired on the car, which exploded about 20 yards from the gate, killing two security guards and wounding a policeman and passer-by.
In violence elsewhere on Sunday,
_Insurgents attacked an army checkpoint in Youssifiyah, 10 miles south of Baghdad, killing nine soldiers and injuring one, said Dr. Dawood Al Taaei of nearby Mahmoudiya hospital.
_Two police sergeants were killed in a drive-by shooting Sunday in Dora, police Capt. Firas Qaiti said.
_Two police commandos were killed and five injured in a car bomb blast in Madain, about 15 miles southeast of Baghdad, police Col. Selam Mehmood said.
_A suicide car bomber, apparently targeting a U.S. convoy, exploded his vehicle near the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in the northern city of Tuz Khormato, killing two Iraqis and injuring nine, police Brig. Sarhat Qadir said.