BAGHDAD — A new military operation involving 74,000 U.S. and Iraqi soldiers is targeting the epicenter of al Qaida in Iraq's operations and the source of recent attacks that have unsettled Iraq after months of relative calm.
The objective of Iron Harvest, part of the nationwide Operation Phantom Phoenix, is to begin ousting Sunni Muslim militants from their stronghold in Iraq's northern provinces this week. Kirkuk, Salah al Din, Nineveh and especially the agricultural lands of Diyala province have been riddled with violence, and the extremist group has targeted U.S.-backed Sunni militia groups and local officials pushing for reconciliation with Iraq's Shiite-led central government.
The violence trickled south from Diyala into Baghdad, where the surge of additional troops in 2007 had helped to improve security. Since Jan. 1, however, at least 68 people have been killed and 135 have been injured by suicide bombs, improvised explosive devices and assassinations that hit local officials as they left for work in the morning.
The recent attacks are "a tool to incite the sectarian tensions that were so damaging to the Iraqi people and the country," said Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner, a U.S. military spokesman, referring to the violence that spiked here in 2006 and early 2007.
The new counterinsurgency strategy devised by the U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David Petraeus, and the U.S. troop buildup helped to push the Sunni militants out of Anbar province and Baghdad last year. But while attacks dropped nationwide, U.S. military officials have acknowledged that many of the extremists moved to Iraq's northern provinces.
Security forces have shifted in and out of the region since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and the resulting instability created a haven for al Qaida in Iraq. Local leaders said that some Sunni villages in the north welcomed the militants as sectarian violence swelled and Shiite militias began to dominate.
But as the northern region began to experience more of the militants' attention-grabbing bombings, kidnappings and intimidation techniques, some Sunnis began to turn against the extremists. When Iron Harvest and Phantom Phoenix were launched this week, U.S. military officials found five severed heads littering the road into Diyala's capital, each with threatening messages scrawled in blood on the forehead.
Brutal intimidation, Bergner said, is "part of their modus operandi."
But the coalition has reinforced its forces in the area recently, and after a few months of intelligence gathering, Iron Harvest kicked off this week with 24,000 coalition troops and 50,000 Iraqi soldiers.
"Why now? Because we can," said Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, the top commander in the north. "Why now? Because the other places are more secure and the enemy has moved into these provinces."
The operation will continue as long as the militants remain in the region, Hertling said. U.S. forces have experienced less resistance than expected in Diyala so far. As al Qaida members learned of the operation, U.S. troops began finding villages rigged with explosives but empty of insurgents.
About 20 to 30 insurgents have been killed so far, Hertling estimated, refusing to give a firm body count. Three U.S. soldiers were killed by small-arms fire in Salah al Din on Jan. 8, a statement from the military said, and six more were killed by an explosive device in a home in Diyala on Jan. 9.
U.S. military officials expect the fight to shift to other northern provinces, and especially to Nineveh's capital city, Mosul. It was the only area in Iraq still experiencing an increase in the number of attacks at the end of 2007. It's a large, diverse city where it's easy for insurgents to hide; more important, it has easy access to the Syrian border, which helps attract foreign fighters, money and weapons.
After each push, Hertling said, U.S. forces plan to build centralized police stations for the 80,000 Iraqi police in the area and to recruit more members for U.S.-allied militias they're calling Concerned Local Citizens. About 70,000 people have been recruited nationwide, including 15,000 in the four northern provinces.
The movement is just starting in Diyala, and its success will rely on the continued presence of the Iraqi army, especially as some U.S. troops are scheduled to leave this year.
"The places we can't be, they are," Hertling said of the fledging Iraqi forces. "As the Iraqi army gets stronger, as Iraqi police stand up, as they are helped by these Concerned Local Citizens, there's no place left for (al Qaida) to go."
Local leaders say residents welcome the change, despite the fighting in the region.
"The citizens of the freed areas are so cooperative with security forces," said Ibraheem Bazhalan, a local council leader in Diyala. "They are one of the factors of the successes we've had. They can't stand the activities of al Qaida anymore. They wanted to get rid of them."
(Gumbrecht reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. McClatchy special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed from Baghdad.)