U.S. Officials: Militants May Have Fled Baghdad Due to Crackdown

Citing an increase in attacks in provinces that border Baghdad, U.S. military officials are starting to believe Sunni and Shiite extremists have fled the Iraqi capital to avoid the new security crackdown.

Attacks north and west of the capital Saturday contrasted with a lull in major violence in Baghdad as U.S. and Iraqi forces try to regain control from sectarian militias and criminal gangs.

A twin bombing left 11 dead in northern Iraq and U.S. aircraft went in action against Sunni insurgents west of Baghdad, as Iraqi officials claimed early success in the campaign to restore order in the capital.

The bombers struck in a Kurdish neighborhood of the oil city of Kirkuk, about 180 miles north of Baghdad, as streets were filled with cars and pedestrians.

Police and witnesses said the first blast occurred near shops and a bus depot. Minutes later, a suicide car bomber attacked the same area. Terrified shoppers fled screaming in panic amid burning cars and debris. A restaurant owner lay screaming on the sidewalk, his body soaked with hot cooking oil after one of the blasts hurled him onto the curb.

Eleven people were killed in the two blasts and 65 were wounded, police Brig. Gen. Sarhat Qader said. Sunni Arabs and Kurds have laid rival claims on Kirkuk and its oil wealth.

In Ramadi, a Sunni insurgent hotbed 70 miles west of the capital, U.S. jets strafed gunmen after they ambushed a U.S. patrol, said 2nd Lt. Roger Hollenbeck, a Marine spokesman. Hours later, U.S. aircraft destroyed a car with gunmen who were trying to escape after they attacked an Army patrol, Hollenbeck said.

There were no U.S. casualties, but Hollenbeck said eight insurgents were killed — four in each attack. The U.S. military did report, however, that a Marine was killed the day before in Anbar province, which includes Ramadi.

Iraqi authorities said they foiled a would-be suicide attack near Karbala, about 50 miles south of Baghdad. A minivan came under fire after the driver failed to slow at a checkpoint, and then detonated the explosives and was killed, said Karbala police spokesman Rahman Mishawi. There were no other casualties.

In Baghdad, however, much of the gunfire appeared to come from Iraqi police shooting in the air to clear the way for their convoys.

On Palestine Street, a main thoroughfare in east Baghdad, police commandos in armored personnel carriers manned dozens of checkpoints — some only about 100 yards apart. In Waziriyah, a Sunni area of northeast Baghdad, cranes put concrete blast barriers in place to block would-be suicide bombers.

American paratroopers from the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division joined Iraqi soldiers in a sweep through a mostly Sunni neighborhood. U.S. Apache helicopters and a jet flew overhead.

Although the Baghdad operation has been in full swing only four days, Iraqi authorities have already begun heralding it as a major success. Iraqi spokesman Brig. Gen. Qassim Moussawi told reporters that "crimes and terrorist attacks" had dropped by 80 percent since Wednesday.

Police said the bodies of only five apparent victims of sectarian death squads were found in Saturday across the capital — in contrast to the scores that were recovered daily in the weeks before.

U.S. officials, however, have said it is too early to declare success.

And Sunni politicians have complained that the initial raids have focused on Sunni neighborhoods, sparing Shiite hotspots such as Sadr City, stronghold of the Mahdi Army of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Sunnis blame the Mahdi Army for much of Baghdad's sectarian violence and for forcing thousands of Sunni families from their homes. Shiites insist the greater threat comes from Sunni extremists including al-Qaida in Iraq.

Al-Sadr is a close ally of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The Shiite prime minister convinced al-Sadr to remove many of his armed militiamen from the streets to avoid a showdown with the Americans.