BAGHDAD, Iraq — Despite major ground-air offensives to the north and south of Baghdad, the deadliest place for U.S. troops remains the capital.
U.S. forces launched their largest assault of Baqouba, the provincial capital of Diyala about 35 miles north of Baghdad, five days ago. Since then, 29 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq - 22 of them in Baghdad, nearly all by roadside bombs, according to a tally on icasualties.org.
One U.S. soldier, Army Spec. Darryl Linder, 23, of Hickory, N.C., has been killed in the Diyala offensive so far.
But the small number of enemy captured or killed, and persistent U.S. casualties in the capital relative to those in major military campaigns in the provinces, raises questions about the efficacy of such operations.
Meanwhile, Iraqis huddled around televisions Sunday to watch Iraq's High Tribunal condemn Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as “Chemical Ali,” and two other former Saddam Hussein henchmen to death for their roles in a 1988 campaign that killed tens of thousands of Kurds in the northern part of the country. Another two were sentenced to life in prison, while the charges against a sixth defendant were dropped.
Four Iraqi security officials touted the success of the Diyala campaign at a press briefing Sunday, saying about 57 insurgents have been killed and about 46 detained. The numbers are remarkably small considering 10,000 U.S.-led forces descended on the Diyala area, where al Qaida in Iraq imposed a strict, often brutal, brand of Islamic law.
Iraqi and U.S. military officials conceded most of the enemy fighters got away. Last week, these same officials talked of enclosing al Qaida forces to prevent them from escaping.
“Their method of fighting is by going,” said Gen. Salem Karim al Utbi, who heads the Iraq Army 5th Division. “Once they feel threatened by Iraqi troops, they flee.”
U.S. forces dominated the initial Diyala assault, code-named Arrowhead Ripper. Iraqi forces joined later, but the U.S. military still dominates the operation. By appearing without American military officials, Sunday’s press conference - beamed to Baghdad from Baqouba - may have tried to suggest Iraqis now are leading the charge.
U.S. military officials last week estimated as many as 500 Sunni al Qaida in Iraq militants were operating in the Baqouba area.
“Obviously, we would have liked to have captured all of them in one fell swoop,” Lt. Col. Christopher Garver told McClatchy Newspapers before Sunday’s press conference. “But the guy who’s packing up his Volkswagen and hauling ass away, he’s not going to take his car-bomb factory with him.”
Seizing weapons caches and car-bomb factories outside Baghdad is how the military will secure the capital, Garver said.
“Any time an insurgent or terrorist has to move out of his area into a new area,” Garver said, “he’s not as entrenched.”
Last week’s U.S. body count suggests Baghdad remains an insurgent hotbed. The casualties occurred primarily in the west, northwest and northeast parts of the city.
The military operations in the provinces to the north and south - collectively known as Phantom Thunder - have not distracted U.S. forces from their primary mission of pacifying Baghdad, Garver said.
The so-called “belts” around Baghdad are havens for car-bomb factories. “You can’t control Baghdad,” he added, “until you control the belts around it.”
U.S. forces continue to battle Shiite militia in the south as well as Shiite militia and Sunni insurgents in Baghdad. Yet America’s most wanted enemy at the moment is Sunni al Qaida in Iraq. The Bush administration's recent shift toward calling the enemy in Iraq "al Qaida" rather than an insurgency may reflect the difficulty in maintaining support for the war at home more than it does the nature of the enemy in Iraq.
The U.S. military and coalition partners recently have sought risky alliances with Sunni insurgent groups, which reportedly are disillusioned with their natural ally over the killing of civilians.
Last week, Iraqi army forces in Diyala joined with members of the 1920 Revolution Brigade, an insurgent group that has used bombings, kidnappings, and armed attacks against U.S forces.
The 1920 Revolution Brigade, which appeared on the scene in June 2003 as a “nationalist Jihadist movement” dedicated to the withdrawal of U.S. forces, on its Web site Sunday denied aiding the American offensive in Diyala.
“We say to … the occupation and to your followers and agents that you made a very big lie” in linking the group with the Diyala anti-al Qaida campaign, the Web site post said.
In Fallujah to the west of Baghdad, the Americans also have sought the help of Sunni smugglers and armed groups, including the Anbar Revolutionists, to help fight al Qaida in Iraq. Underscoring the inherent danger in such alliances - and posing a long-term threat to stability in Baghdad - the Anbar Revolutionists group has publicly vowed to turn on Shiite militias and death squads in the capital.
The U.S. military has identified more than 20 enemy insurgent and militia groups in Baghdad, including the Mahdi Army, armed followers of anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Al Qaida in Iraq is “enemy No. 1,” Garver said. “But not the only enemy.”