BAGHDAD (AFP) -Around 10,000 US and Iraqi troops launched a major air and ground assault on Al-Qaeda networks in the restive province of Diyala where thousands of people have died in insurgent attacks.
At least 22 people were killed in the biggest offensive so far in the province. Operation Arrowhead Ripper was focused in and around the capital city of Baquba, a stronghold of Al-Qaeda operations in Iraq.
“Task Force Lightning commenced Operation Arrowhead Ripper today in a large-scale effort to eliminate Al-Qaeda in Iraq terrorists operating in Baquba and its surrounding areas,” the military said in a statement.
“Approximately 10,000 soldiers, with a full complement of attack helicopters, close air support, Strykers and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, are taking part in Arrowhead Ripper, which is still in its opening stages.”
The military said the assault was launched with a rapid night-time air assault and that by daybreak 22 militants had been killed.
“The end state is to destroy the Al-Qaeda influences in this province and eliminate their threat against the people,” said US commander Brigadier General Mick Bednarek.
Troops burst into several areas surrounding the western part of Baquba — one of the main strongholds of Al-Qaeda — and were closing off main entrances as helicopters swirled overhead, local residents said.
Iraqi army Colonel Naguib al-Salahi said several civilians were feared killed or wounded. He did not have a precise number because “armed forces are preventing ambulances from entering the area.”
Six Kurdish soldiers in the Iraqi army were also killed in the town of Hibhib, near Baquba, colleague Major General Anwar Mohammed Amin said.
“Last night our forces in Hibhib came under heavy fire from courtyards and houses in a battle lasting from five in the evening to two in the morning, leading to the deaths of six of our soldiers and the wounding of 16 others,” he said.
Another security official confirmed the attack, adding that three army vehicles were burned while on their way to Baghdad.
Authorities imposed a curfew in Baquba as intense fighting broke out, with police fanning out across the city and using loudspeakers to warn people to stay indoors.
“We have begun a security plan and we will remove the armed men and the militias. We are here to help you,” they announced, according to an AFP correspondent.
As US-led troops have pressed on with a four-month-old surge of troops into Baghdad, insurgents have fanned off into surrounding areas, especially Diyala province.
The province has in recent months become the battleground for intense fighting between US-led forces, Shiite militias, and Sunni insurgents. Thousands of civilians have been killed and many thousands more have fled.
With both the Tigris and Diyala rivers running through a lush land filled with green fields and orchards, Diyala contrasts with the arid provinces around it.
But the province, also known as “mini-Iraq” for its ethnic and religious mix, has turned into a sectarian quagmire with extreme violence and displacement of people.
The volatile city of Baquba has been a safe haven for Al-Qaeda in Iraq since early last year and came in sharp focus after the slaying of the group’s former leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in Hibhib in a US air strike on June 7, 2006.
Bednarek said Arrowhead Ripper aimed at helping Iraqi ministries to provide basic services, which “will build trust and confidence of the people not only in the provinical government, but in the central government as well.”
Meanwhile, fierce clashes between security forces and Shiite militiamen in and around the southern cities of Amara and Nasiriyah since Monday killed at least 35 people, mostly Shiite militiamen.
At least 20 militants were killed in clashes around Amara, the military said, while 15 more people died in Nasiriyah where clashes continued overnight until an uneasy calm returned on Tuesday.