BAGHDAD (Reuters) – U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a series of operations on Tuesday targeting al Qaeda in Iraq after an upsurge in suicide bombings which U.S. commanders say are an attempt by the militant group to reignite sectarian violence.
“Working closely with the Iraqi security forces, we will continue to pursue al Qaeda and other extremists wherever they attempt to take sanctuary,” said Lieutenant-General Raymond Odierno, in a statement announcing the start of the offensive, dubbed Operation Phantom Phoenix.
Odierno gave few details of the new offensive but said it comprised a “series of joint Iraqi and Coalition division- and brigade-level operations to pursue and neutralize remaining al Qaeda in Iraq and other extremist elements.”
Odierno, the day-to-day commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, did not say how Operation Phoenix would differ from current U.S. operations hunting al Qaeda operatives or what areas American and Iraqi forces would target.
The U.S. military says al Qaeda has been badly damaged but has the capacity to launch so-called “spectacular” attacks that cause mass casualties.
They say the group is now targeting U.S.-backed mainly Sunni neighborhood patrols, armed volunteers paid by the U.S. military that include former insurgent fighters who have turned against the hardline Islamism and violence of al Qaeda.
On Monday, a double suicide bomb attack killed 14 people including the head of the neighborhood patrols in the Adhamiya district of Baghdad, a former al Qaeda stronghold, and gunmen in five cars kidnapped 8-10 volunteers in nearby Shaab district.
The main Sunni Arab bloc in parliament, the Accordance Front called on the government to do more to protect the volunteers.
“The Accordance Front expresses its fear of the return of violence to all of Iraq and especially to Baghdad,” Abdul-Karim al-Samarrai, a senior Front parliamentarian said in a statement.
U.S. counter-insurgency operations in the second half of 2007 pushed al Qaeda out of Baghdad and denied them safe haven in the surrounding towns and farmlands.
Al Qaeda fighters have moved northwards into Nineveh and Salahuddin provinces and are still operating in areas south of Baghdad and the Diyala River valley north of the capital.
U.S. military commander General David Petraeus said last month that his forces would relentlessly pursue al Qaeda, which he called the “most significant enemy that Iraq faces” despite the killing of hundreds of its fighters and leaders.
Odierno said Operation Phantom Phoenix would include an economic component “designed to improve delivery of essential services, economic development and local governance capacity.”