BAGHDAD – The top U.S. commander in northern Iraq said Wednesday a nationwide operation launched against insurgents was meeting less resistance than expected, but that troops would pursue the militants until they were dead or pushed out of the country.
Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling told reporters in Baghdad that in his area of control alone, 24,000 American troops, 50,000 members of the Iraq army and 80,000 Iraqi police were taking part in the offensive against Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Diyala province northeast of Baghdad has not seen the same drop in violence that other parts of the nation have witnessed in the last six months. Commanders say that is because insurgents who were pushed out of Anbar province to the west and out of Baghdad fled north into Hertling's territory, specifically into Diyala.
"We're attempting to increase the tempo of operations in that specific province," Hertling said. "There are more U.S. and Iraqi security forces in Diyala now than there ever has been."
Three U.S. soldiers were killed Tuesday in an attack north of Baghdad, the military said. The attack took place in Salahuddin province, an area covered by the current operation, but the soldiers' role was unclear from the military statement. Two other soldiers were wounded.
On Tuesday, the No. 2 U.S. commander, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, announced the new operation — named Phantom Phoenix — had begun. He said its goal was to crush Al Qaeda in Iraq extremists and at the same time improve the social situation for Iraqis.
Asked about the timing of the operation, Hertling said the answer was simple.
"Why now? Because we can. Baghdad is more secure. Anbar is more secure," he said. "Why now? Because ... the enemy has moved into these (northern) provinces."
Hertling said there would be three basic phases to Operation Phantom Phoenix.
First, U.S. and Iraqi forces would try to clear areas of insurgents. Then, Iraqi police would move in to establish some semblance of law and order. Finally, Hertling said, the so-called "Awakening Groups" or "Concerned Local Citizens" — mostly Sunni fighters who have joined the Americans in the battle against Al Qaeda — would be relied upon to maintain stability after troops move out of areas.
Hertling said reports that insurgents in Diyala had fled north just before Phantom Phoenix began were probably accurate, a reason troops have met relatively little resistance so far. He also said the insurgent probably learned of the military's plans in advance.
"Operational security in Iraq is a problem," he said, noting that the Iraqi army uses unsecured cell phones and radios. "I'm sure there is active leaking of communication. That is why we have to keep a tight line on operational security."
Hertling said his troops had killed 20-30 insurgents so far.
Hertling and other American commanders have said the latest blitz against insurgents is bringing more than just firepower to the field — a determination to speed up work on basic services and other civic projects that commanders believe will win more converts to the American effort.
Odierno said Tuesday that it would focus on bettering Iraqi lives as well as on attacks against Al Qaeda.
The U.S. military already has spent vast sums on public works projects nationwide to try to improve schools, boost electricity and potable water service, pave roads, and rebuild sewer systems.
But Tuesday's announcement appears to have been the first American operation that publicly declared an intention to at once kill and capture Al Qaeda fighters while pushing to improve the lives of Iraqi people in other ways.
U.S. commanders credit the Sunni backlash against the terror group with helping to reduce violence over the past six months. Usama bin Laden condemned the new American allies in an audiotape released Dec. 29.