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ARAB-US RELATIONS - Jan 8 - US Launches Major Iraq Offensive.

With extraordinary secrecy and even a disinformation campaign aims at their Iraqi Army comrades, American troops launch a major offensive to drive extremist Sunni insurgents from their stronghold in Diyala Province. But many insurgents still managed to flee ahead of time, showing just how difficult it is for the Americans to trap militants who keep eluding them. Because at least half the insurgents escaped before a previous offensive last June, American planners deliberately kept most Iraqi units in the dark before this one was started, a tactic that suggests they cannot fully trust the allies who are supposed to pick up more of the fighting as American troops scale back their presence later this year. The militants who escaped this time may have been tipped by leaks or the visible movements of troops and machinery that precede any operation. How they managed to get out ahead of the Americans remained unclear. American commanders believe it is essential to hobble the extremists in order to sustain recent security gains and ultimately pacify Iraq. The offensive is part of a wider operation across northern Iraq to drive extremists from the north, where many of the fighters and leaders of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia are thought to have fled after military operations around Baghdad, Anbar, and last June in Baquba, the provincial capital about 50 kms, or 30 miles, farther south. "We have taken great strides to convince the enemy that we are not interested in the Breadbasket", the nickname for this fertile area 95 kms north-east of Baghdad, said Brigadier General James Boozer, the deputy commander in the north. Although the commander of the Iraqi 5th Army Division in Diyala was aware of the intended target, American units in recent days and weeks carried out operations in other towns, such as Baquba and Wajihiya, both farther south, to lead extremists to think that the operation would be elsewhere. "What has been happening in Baquba and Wajihiya specifically has been somewhat of a deception effort", said Major General Mark Hertling, the commander of American forces in northern Iraq. "That's what's been kind of holding our tongue, because we have allowed the enemy to believe that Diyala has been wide open while we have been generating forces in here to nail them". Outlining details of the "feint" a few days before the attack, he added: That's why if you were to go up to an Iraqi soldier on the street today, or even some of their senior leaders and say 'So what's going on in Diyala?' they might tell you something that doesn't quite synch with this plan in Muqdadiya". Some advance units had noticed an unusual number of women and children fleeing south in cars in recent days and residents of Esaiwid said that the fighters left the village days ago, although some appear to have remained behind or returned to plant a car bomb. In any case, it is hard to conceal thousands of American soldiers and scores of armored vehicles, Iraqi military units, translators and support workers moving into place through highways and towns in central Diyala, even though their movements were staggered and mainly at night. "The locals reported that AQI were tipped off that the operation was going to happen here because of the increase in helicopter traffic overhead", said First Lieutenant Max Ferguson, of Iron Company, 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment. He used the military acronym for Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. The current operation, which involves seven American battalions and a major Iraqi Army presence, is larger than the previous one, when half or more of the estimated 300 to 500 Qaeda fighters escaped from Baquba before the offensive began. As the offensive began just before dawn, armored Stryker units pushed into the fertile Northern Diyala River Valley in search of 200 insurgents with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the largely homegrown Sunni insurgent group which American intelligence says is foreign-led and now represents the "principal" threat to stability in Iraq. The advancing soldiers encountered numerous improvised roadside bombs and booby-traps, barely detectable except for the telltale filaments of copper wire glinting in the early morning sun through the undergrowth and orange trees. One unit called in a Hellfire missile strike to destroy a car sitting innocuously beside a canal, after residents of Esaiwid warned them it had been rigged with explosives earlier that morning by fleeing insurgents. Other units were not so fortunate. Commanders on the ground said that three vehicles had been hit by roadside bombs elsewhere in the offensive, without causing serious casualties. American commanders say the area has long provided cover for Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. "This is a massive operation to really squeeze in the Breadbasket what we think is a major Al Qaeda logistics site, and to a lesser degree command and control operations", Hertling said. "The intent of this operation is to hit them hard here, make them defend, and at the same time stop them from flowing to other places". There would also be attacks in other areas, he said, "to make them look in several different directions, to affect not only their fighters but their leaders, their financiers and their support base". The current operation is being led by the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, with support from other units in the area around Muqdadiya to catch insurgents trying to slip out of the area. Although American units ran into many concealed bombs, they encountered little or no direct contact with Qaeda fighters. American commanders say some of the intelligence on Qaeda activities in the palm groves has come from fighters captured during raids in December, including one near Muqdadiya that uncovered mass graves and a torture chamber with a metal bed frame attached to electrical wires, and chains to bloodstained walls. The military said it had killed 24 insurgents and detained 37 during that operation, and also gleaned information from villagers who had hitherto been intimidated by insurgents in areas recently taken by American and Iraqi forces. The hazards are numerous, even outside the immediate area of the Breadbasket. During one Jan. 4 patrol with 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment in the buildup to the offensive, a photographer working for The New York Times snagged his foot on a copper filament hidden in undergrowth, which led to an improvised explosive device buried in an old bomb hole. The filament was a command wire of the sort used by a bomber to trigger the device with an electrical current, not a tripwire. The bomb did not explode and was safely disposed of later. Some American units used to operations around Baghdad have had to adapt quickly to the rural terrain. In Baghdad they had to deal with what are termed "victim-operated IEDs", including bombs triggered by metal pressure plates or buried cables that leave only a small tell-tale bump in a road surface. Now they encounter bombs buried so deep beneath the soil and grass roots of orchards that they are almost impossible to spot in advance.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Recorder
Date:Jan 12, 2008
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