BAGHDAD — Inside a fortified conference room and through the prism of U.S. and Iraqi military officials, a security plan to pacify the country was working on Wednesday. Outside, extremists blew up mosques, lobbed mortars into Baghdad's heavily protected Green Zone and generated a steady drumbeat of violence.
Just hours before a top U.S. military spokesman said that troop buildups, added checkpoints and other measures launched in February were showing signs of success, suspected Shiite militiamen bombed two Sunni mosques south of Baghdad. An explosion damaged a third Sunni mosque south of the capital hours later.
No deaths were reported in the morning bombings of the Usama Bin Zaid and Abdallah Al Jobori mosques in Iskandariyah and in the afternoon one at the Sfoog mosque in Jbala. But coming the day after a truck bombing outside a Shiite mosque in the capital killed at least 78 people, the attacks stoked fears that retaliatory bombings of Muslim religious sites would escalate.
Twenty-nine unidentified bodies were found dumped on Baghdad's streets.
Navy Rear Adm. Mark Fox told reporters inside Baghdad's fortified Green Zone that the U.S.-led security plan, which included a massive ground-air assault on al Qaida in Iraq forces in Diyala province on Tuesday, is stemming Shiite-Sunni reprisal killings.
U.S. forces are also conducting a second operation south of Baghdad "to prevent insurgents from entering the southern Baghdad belts," Fox said.
The Diyala assault, which the military dubbed Operation Arrowhead Ripper, involves more than 10,000 troops — on foot, in armored Stryker vehicles, tanks and aircraft. They moved into the provincial capital of Baqouba early Tuesday to dismantle the radical Islamic order that al Qaida in Iraq imposed.
A U.S. military statement said American forces had killed at least 41 insurgents, discovered five weapons caches and destroyed 25 roadside bombs and five houses that had been booby-trapped.
U.S. officials confirmed that one American had been killed. He was identified as Spc. Darryl W. Linder, 23, of Hickory, N.C., assigned to the 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas.
It was a surprisingly low death toll given the reported size of the operation. A similar sized assault on Fallujah in 2004 resulted in scores of Americans dead and wounded.
Loren B. Thompson, a military analyst for the Lexington Institute, a Washington-area think tank, said the low number of U.S. casualties so far suggests that the U.S. forces entered Baqouba gingerly and haven't yet faced heavy resistance or that the insurgents have disappeared.
"For a nest of terrorists, so far this has been pretty benign," he said.
Military officials said they expected al Qaida forces to try to escape and that U.S. forces would try to prevent them from doing so. Six "uninjured adult males" were caught "attempting to evade a checkpoint in an Iraqi ambulance," a military statement said.
"These criminals will know no safe place to hide in Diyala," Brig. Gen. Mick Bednarek, deputy commander of the Diyala offensive, said in a statement. "The people of Diyala are tired of the terror and violence these al Qaida thugs have brought to their province and are cooperating with us in order to root them out."
Iraqi officials reported that about 30 gunmen attacked a checkpoint north of Baqouba, killing seven police.
The Iraqi Ministry of Defense also said that Baqouba residents welcomed the show of military force.
Not all, however, were optimistic.
"American troops have their own agenda, which is different ... from the hopes of the people of the province," one resident, Mohammed Norui, told McClatchy Newspapers. "I don't think that their operations or any other operation can achieve the aims of ... ending terror."
Another resident blamed the military push for nearly doubling the price of cooking fuel and gasoline.
Fox credited the recent addition of 28,500 troops to Iraq with allowing U.S. forces to conduct multiple large-scale assaults simultaneously.
"The addition of five brigades allows us to conduct such a large operation in Diyala and still conduct operations in Anbar, up north ... or in Baghdad," Fox said.
He disputed the idea that insurgents simply melt away whenever U.S. forces arrive en masse, leaving the American military to play a game of cat-and-mouse. He noted that Diyala had been besieged by insurgents well before local tribes turned on al Qaida in Iraq in Anbar province.
"The fact is, there was fighting going on in Diyala well before we turned the corner in Anbar," he said. "So I don't completely buy the thesis that we're chasing terrorists wherever they go. I will say we will go and conduct operations on terrorists wherever they are."
Meanwhile, violence continued in Baghdad. A roadside bomb killed one policeman and wounded three others, a mortar round wounded three civilians in the al Saidiyah neighborhood in the southern part of the city, and gunmen assassinated the general director of an Iraqi-American company in the Sleikh neighborhood in northern Baghdad.
A volley of mortar rounds struck inside the Green Zone, with at least one round striking the U.S. Embassy, Iraqi police reported. There was no confirmation from U.S. officials.
(Drummond reports for The Charlotte Observer. Hammoudi is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent.)