U.S., Iraqi Forces Launch Offensive in Diyala Province

U.S. and Iraqi forces fanned out in the volatile Diyala province Tuesday in a new operation aimed at clearing Al Qaeda in Iraq from safe havens in an area considered the last major insurgent belt around the capital.

New checkpoints were erected across the province and authorities ordered a ban on unofficial traffic as search operations got under way in the provincial capital of Baqouba and surrounding areas, 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 Shiite militiamen in Baghdad, Basra and Amarah.

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

Ghaidan said the operation's goal is "to clear Al Qaeda in Diyala."

"We have a list of wanted persons that the troops will arrest them during the operations," Ghaidan said.

The province, which sits to the north of the capital and borders Iran, has been one of the hardest areas to control since the U.S.-led war began in March 2003. Baqouba, the provincial capital, was hit by a twin homicide bombing that killed at least 28 people on July 15 and has seen a number of female homicide attacks.

"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 in a statement.

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

"We applaud the Iraqis' growing ability to lead, plan and execute complex combat, policy and humanitarian operations and we look forward to reducing our support footprint as security conditions on the ground permit," the statement said.

The religiously mixed area is critical to Baghdad's security because of its strategic importance as an entrance to the capital and a threat to supply routes going north.

Similar offensives against Shiite 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.

Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, who commands U.S. forces in northern Iraq, has expressed confidence that this effort will be more successful because Iraqi security forces are better prepared.

In Baghdad, hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims gathered around a golden-domed shrine in a massive religious assembly on Tuesday, a day after three female homicide bombers struck their procession and killed 32 people.

The black-clad pilgrims were streaming toward the shrine of Imam Moussa al-Kadhim in the northern neighborhood of Kazimiyah where police set up checkpoints and searched people.

Authorities have also imposed a vehicle ban in Baghdad and deployed tens of thousands of policemen in the streets in fear of further violence during Tuesday's pilgrimage.

Another homicide bombing on Monday killed 25 people during a rally in Kirkuk, 180 miles to the north, where Kurds were protesting a draft provincial elections law that would give them less power in Kirkuk.

An estimated 10,000 Kurds demonstrated against the elections law in the nearby city of Irbil on Tuesday.

The U.S. military on Tuesday blamed Al Qaeda in Iraq for the Baghdad and Kirkuk bombings.