BAQOUBA, Iraq — U.S. and Iraqi forces have killed 90 al Qaeda fighters across Baghdad in the past five days during one of the biggest combined offensives against the Sunni Islamist group since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, U.S. officials said yesterday.
U.S. air strikes yesterday killed seven fighters suspected of belonging to al Qaeda in Tikrit in Salahuddin province and near the city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, the U.S. military said.
The U.S. military also announced yesterday that roadside bombs killed seven American troops in Iraq, including four in a single incident outside Baghdad.
U.S. and Iraqi security forces are on alert as an Iraqi court is scheduled to deliver its verdict today for six former high-ranking officials during Saddam Hussein's rule accused of leading a military campaign against ethnic Kurds in the 1980s that killed tens of thousands.
The most prominent defendant is Saddam's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as "Chemical Ali" for his reported use of poison gas against opponents. Charges against Saddam, originally the seventh defendant, lapsed when he was executed in December in a separate case.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for al-Majid and four others, and the release of a sixth, the former governor of Mosul province in northern Iraq, for lack of evidence.
In the latest military action, thousands of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers are taking part in simultaneous offensives in provinces across Baghdad to deny al Qaeda militants sanctuary in farmlands and towns from which they launch car bomb attacks and other violence.
U.S. officials say al Qaeda is trying to spark all-out sectarian civil war in Iraq. A key plank of the combined offensives is Operation Arrowhead Ripper, which began Tuesday in and around the city of Baqouba in Diyala province.
The U.S. military said yesterday that 55 al Qaeda militants had been killed in that operation alone. Another 28 have been killed in separate operations in the past several days in Diyala, north of Baghdad, the U.S. military said.
One U.S. soldier was reported killed in the Diyala operation and four were killed by a roadside bomb northwest of Baghdad yesterday. The U.S. military did not say whether the soldiers had been taking part in the offensive. Two other soldiers also were reported killed in separate incidents.
U.S. soldiers have been tightening the cordon around al Qaeda fighters holed up in Baqouba, advancing carefully through streets lined with roadside bombs and booby-trapped houses.
"We are enveloping the enemy into a 'kill sack,' " said Command Sgt. Maj. Jeff Huggins from the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade.
Baqouba is an al Qaeda stronghold that also has become a sanctuary for militants escaping the four-month-old security crackdown in Baghdad. U.S. officials hope that striking militants outside the capital will support the security operations inside Baghdad.
Col. Steve Townsend, commander of the 3rd Stryker Brigade, told local Iraqi political and military leaders in Baqouba that progress was being made.
"I believe the initial stage of the operation will be completed in another three to five days," Col. Townsend said at a building that serves as a joint command center for U.S. and Iraqi forces.
The overall offensive around Baqouba is expected to last many weeks. U.S. military commanders have said the combined operations take advantage of the completion of a buildup of U.S. forces in Iraq to 156,000.
President Bush has sent 28,000 more troops to Iraq to buy time for Shi'ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to reach a political compromise with disaffected minority Sunni Arabs, who are locked in a cycle of violence with majority Shi'ites.
Separately, a pre-dawn operation by U.S. forces working with Iraqi informants in Baghdad's main Shi'ite district of Sadr City netted three other militants suspected of ties to Iran, the military said.
The U.S. has accused Iran of providing mainly Shi'ite militias with training and powerful roadside bombs that have killed hundreds of American troops in recent months.