- The Washington Times - Monday, May 30, 2005

BAGHDAD — Iraqi forces swept through Baghdad yesterday, erecting checkpoints and searching vehicles as they began the largest offensive of its kind since Saddam Hussein’s ouster.

Insurgents and terrorists hit back with suicide bombings and ambushes that killed at least 27 persons, including a British soldier.

The first of more than 40,000 soldiers and police, supported by U.S. forces, searched hundreds of vehicles and raided several houses, described as “terrorist dens” in Baghdad’s Dora neighborhood, arresting several suspects, army Capt. Ihssan Abdel-Hamza said.

Operation Lightning was launched as a direct challenge to a wave of terror attacks that have killed more than 720 people since the April 28 announcement of Iraq’s new Shi’ite-led government, according to an Associated Press count. At least seven militants died in suicide bombings or gunbattles yesterday.

“We set up these checkpoints in order to arrest all those insurgents trying to destroy this country, and we will hit them with an iron fist,” said Iraqi army Sgt. Ali al-Khazali while manning a highway checkpoint in Dora.

Insurgents defied the offensive, staging a series of coordinated attacks in western Baghdad as well as the southern and northern outskirts of the capital. U.S. jet fighters and attack helicopters flew overhead during the clashes.

In western Baghdad, insurgents attacked two police stations, an Iraqi army barracks and a checkpoint within 30 minutes in the Abu Ghraib, Amariyah and Khadra neighborhoods, killing three civilians and wounding 15 persons, including 10 Iraqi security forces, police officials said.

About 50 gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and machine guns at the Baghdad police’s Major Crime Unit in Amariyah in a half-hour battle at about 3:30 p.m.

U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Clifford Kent said insurgents apparently were trying to break detained militants out of custody, but the attack was repelled by Iraqi police and commandos.

Several minutes later, a car bomb exploded at a nearby Amariyah army barracks and an Iraqi military-controlled checkpoint in Abu Ghraib, the focus of a recent Iraqi-U.S. military operation, dubbed Operation Squeeze Play, a prelude to the current offensive, to clear the volatile area of militants.

About 4 p.m., gunmen attacked Khadra police station during a 15-minute firefight, police Lt. Majid Zaki said.

The Iraqi government said the offensive would continue despite the violence.

“With the escalating operations by security forces, we expect such reactions coming to the surface, but this will have no affect on the operations,” Laith Kuba, spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, said during a press conference.

Iraqi security forces will erect 675 checkpoints to try to deter assailants around the city and in areas where attacks are frequent, and begin street-to-street sweeps.

Baghdad will be divided into two sectors, Karkh on the west bank of the Tigris River that separates the city, and Risafa on the east. Karkh will be divided into 15 subdistricts and Risafa into seven subdistricts. Police and emergency personnel will operate 24 hours a day.

It was not known how long Operation Lighting would last.

Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Iraqi performance in the offensive would be an important indication of their readiness to take over security issues, a key part of the U.S. exit strategy from Iraq.

“Clearly, what we want to have happen in Iraq is to have Iraqi security forces take charge of their own security. And every day, they’re more and more able to do that,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Separately, the U.S. military announced the end of Operation New Market, a four-day offensive aimed at disrupting insurgent activities around Haditha, 140 miles northwest of Baghdad.

At least 14 insurgents were killed and more than 30 suspects detained in the operation, which also left two U.S. Marines dead.

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