/ 19 June 2007

US says 10 000 troops in major Iraq offensive

The United States military said it had launched a huge offensive against al Qaeda north of Baghdad on Tuesday involving 10 000 soldiers, one of the single biggest operations since the end of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The military said in a statement that 22 militants had been killed in the early hours of the offensive, which is taking place around the city of Baquba in Diyala province, an al Qaeda in Iraq stronghold.

Attack helicopters and ground forces launched the offensive to ”eliminate” al-Qaeda in Iraq militants operating in Baquba and its surrounding areas, the statement said.

”The end state is to destroy the al-Qaeda influences in this province and eliminate their threat against the people,” said Brigadier-General Mick Bednarek, deputy commanding general, operations, 25th Infantry Division.

”That is the number one, bottom-line, up-front, in-your-face, task and purpose.”

The statement said approximately 10 00 soldiers, backed up by attack helicopters, close air support and various armoured vehicles were taking part in Operation Arrowhead Ripper.

It did not say how long the operation would last.

”It’s certainly one of the largest since the end of ground operations in 2003,” US military spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher Garver told Reuters.

The US military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, has called al-Qaeda the ”public enemy number one” in Iraq.

US officials say the group is trying to tip Iraq into full-scale sectarian civil war with a wave of car bomb attacks and other acts of violence.

The operation comes just days after the US military said it had completed its troop build-up in Iraq to 160 000 soldiers.

Nearly 28 000 additional troops have been sent to Iraq, mainly to Baghdad but also to western Anbar province for a crackdown on sectarian violence. That campaign has prompted many militants to shift the focus of their attacks to other areas, especially Diyala province.

The Baquba offensive also comes less than a week after the second bombing of the revered Shi’ite al-Askari mosque in the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad.

US and Iraqi officials have blamed al-Qaeda for the attack, which destroyed the mosque’s two minarets.

A bombing at the shrine in February 2006 collapsed its famed golden dome, triggering a wave of sectarian violence that has killed tens of thousands of people.

The US troop build-up is intended to buy time for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government to reach a political accommodation with minority Sunni Arabs, who were dominant under Saddam Hussein.

But the main political blocs have so far shown a reluctance to compromise on any of the key issues blocking reconciliation. – Reuters