- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 23, 2007

BAQOUBA, Iraq — Thousands of U.S. soldiers on the offensive north of Baghdad are facing fierce resistance from hundreds of al Qaeda militants who are ready to fight to the death, a U.S. general said yesterday.

The militants are making their stand in and around the Iraq city of Baqouba, 40 miles north of Baghdad, where the U.S. military Tuesday launched one of its biggest operations since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

“It is house to house, block to block, street to street, sewer to sewer,” said Brig. Gen. Mick Bednarek, commander of Operation Arrowhead Ripper in Iraq’s Diyala province.

Not far from Baqouba, U.S. attack helicopters killed 17 suspected al Qaeda gunmen on the outskirts of the town of Khalis early yesterday, the U.S. military said.

The military said those killed were armed and had been acting suspiciously around an Iraqi police patrol. That brings to 68 the number of militants killed so far in the operation.

A top U.S. commander suggested it could be spring before Iraqi forces are ready to take responsibility for areas cleared by U.S. troops in Arrowhead Ripper and other operations taking place around Baghdad as part of a broader offensive.

“I think if everything goes the way it’s going now, there’s a potential that by the spring we would be able to reduce forces and Iraqi security forces could take over,” Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno said.

Gen. Odierno, the top commander for day-to-day operations in Iraq, told Pentagon reporters by video link that Iraqi forces might be ready sooner, but it was hard to predict exactly when.

U.S. officials accuse Sunni Islamist al Qaeda of using car bombings and other violence to try to tip Iraq into full-scale sectarian civil war. A suicide truck bomb blamed on al Qaeda killed 87 persons outside a Shi’ite mosque in Baghdad Tuesday.

Gen. Bednarek estimated that several hundred al Qaeda militants were in Baqouba and it would be a long and dangerous job for U.S. forces to flush them out.

“They will not go any further. They will fight to the death,” Gen. Bednarek told Reuters and another news agency.

“There have been houses that were used by al Qaeda as safe houses … their entire structures rigged with massive explosives.”

Baqouba is the capital of Diyala province. The region has long been an al Qaeda hotbed, but attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces have soared here since a four-month-old U.S.-led security crackdown in Baghdad and operations elsewhere prompted many al Qaeda militants and other gunmen to seek sanctuary in Diyala.

The campaign is part of a broader offensive involving tens of thousands of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers pushing on with simultaneous operations in Baghdad, and to the south and west of the capital.

Tough fighting is expected over the next 45 to 60 days, U.S. military officials said, sketching a rough timeline for the combined operations.

Gen. Bednarek said U.S. forces are making some grisly discoveries as they scour Baqouba.

He said residents led soldiers to a house in the western part of the city that appeared to have been used to hold, torment and kill hostages. Soldiers destroyed it.

“When you walk into a room and you see blood trails, you see saws, you see drills, knives, in addition to weapons, that is not normal,” Gen. Bednarek said.

U.S. military commanders said that the combined operations were taking advantage of the completion of a buildup of American forces in Iraq to 156,000 soldiers and Marines.

President Bush sent 28,000 extra troops, mainly to Baghdad, to help curb sectarian bloodshed and buy time for Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to reach a political accommodation with disaffected minority Sunni Arabs, who are locked in a cycle of violence with majority Shi’ite Muslims.

Given the scope of the offensive in Diyala, U.S. casualties have been light so far with one soldier killed, although in Baghdad roadside bombs are exacting a heavy toll.

Gen. Bednarek said the fight against al Qaeda in Diyala also involved local Sunni Arabs who opposed the United States but had since fallen out with al Qaeda over its indiscriminate killing of civilians.

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