- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 30, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) | U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a new operation Tuesday aimed at clearing al Qaeda in Iraq from the volatile Diyala province, considered the last major insurgent safe haven near the capital.

New checkpoints went up across the province - one of the hardest areas to control since the U.S.-led war began in March 2003 - and authorities banned unofficial traffic as troops searched for insurgents around the provincial capital of Baqouba, according to witnesses. Many residents said they were afraid to leave their houses.

The U.S.-backed Iraqi military is hoping to build on recent security gains from similar offensives against Sunni insurgents in the northern city of Mosul and Shi’ite militiamen in Baghdad and the southern cities of Basra and Amarah.

The religiously mixed area contains key supply routes to Baghdad and northern cities and has been plagued not only by attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces, but also by the kidnappings and sectarian killings that have left many of its residents - both Sunni and Shi’ite - living in fear.

The troops were focusing on chasing al Qaeda and other insurgents, who have sought refuge in Diyala to escape earlier crackdowns, said Gen. Ali Ghaidan, the commander of Iraqi ground forces in the province, who announced the start of the operation.

Gen. Ghaidan said the operation’s goal is “to clear Diyala [of] al Qaeda.”

The province sits to the north of the capital and borders Iran. Baqouba was hit by twin suicide bombings that killed at least 28 people on July 15 and has seen a number of suicide attacks carried out by women.

“The goal of the operation is to seek out and destroy criminal elements and terrorist threats in Diyala and eliminate smuggling corridors in the surrounding area,” the U.S. military said.

The military said it was an Iraqi-led operation, stressing the point as the Iraqi government is seeking to assert more control over military operations.

Similar offensives against Shi’ite militiamen in Baghdad and southern cities have contributed to a sharp decline in attacks. But violence has been slower to decline in Diyala and elsewhere in northern Iraq despite several military operations in recent years.

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