About 10,000 US soldiers launched an offensive early yesterday northeast of Baghdad against al-Qaeda in Iraq, killing more than 22 insurgents, the US military said.
The raids, dubbed "Operation Arrowhead Ripper," took place in Baqubah, the capital of Diyala Province, and involved air assaults under the cover of darkness, the military said in a statement.
The operation was still in its opening stages, it said.
The US soldiers were accompanied by attack helicopters, Strykers and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, the statement said.
Shortly after the raids were launched, a truck bomb exploded outside a Shiite mosque in central Baghdad, killing at least 75 people and wounding 200 others, Iraqi security and hospital officials said.
A truck parked near Al-Kholani mosque exploded just before 2pm, sending smoke billowing over concrete buildings in over the Sinak district, officials said.
Meanwhile, the commander of Iraqi military operations in Diyala Province, Major General Abdul-Karim al-Rubaie, said yesterday that handcuffs, swords and electricity cables -- apparently used as torture implements -- had been seized from militant safe houses in the area.
The operation was part of new US and Iraqi attacks on Baghdad's northern and southern flanks, which military officials said were aimed at clearing out Sunni insurgents, al-Qaeda fighters and Shiite militiamen who had fled the city and Anbar during a four-month-old security operation.
A top US military official said on Monday that US forces were taking advantage of the arrival of a final brigade of 30,000 additional US troops to open the concerted attacks.
"We are going into the areas that have been sanctuaries of al-Qaeda and other extremists to take them on and weed them out, to help get the areas clear and to really take on al-Qaeda," the official said on condition of anonymity.
"Those are areas in the belts around Baghdad, some parts in Anbar Province and specifically Diyala Province," he said.
Al-Qaeda has proven to be an extremely agile foe for US and Iraqi forces, as shown by its ability to transfer major operations to Baqubah from Anbar Province, the sprawling desert region in western Iraq. There is no guarantee that driving the organization out of current sanctuaries would prevent it from migrating to other regions to continue the fight.
In recent months, the verdant orange and palm groves of Diyala have become one of the most fiercely contested regions in Iraq. The province is a tangle of Shiite and Sunni villages that has played into the hands of al-Qaeda and allied militants who have melted into the tense region and sought to inflame existing sectarian troubles.
Al-Qaeda has conducted public executions in Baqubah's main square and otherwise sought to enforce an extreme Taliban-style Islamic code.
The terror organization's actions in the province have caused some Sunni militants, al-Qaeda's natural allies, to turn their guns on the group with US assistance and blessing. Some militant Shiites are likewise joining government forces in a bid to oust the foreign fighters and Muslim extremists.
In southern Iraq, police and hospital officials said the death toll reached 22 in clashes that continued into a second day between Mehdi Army fighters and Iraqi security forces in Nasiriyah, about 320km southeast of Baghdad.
More than 60 people, many of them policemen, were injured, authorities said.
Nine mortar shells were launched early yesterday at police headquarters in the town, and three policemen were injured, police said. A vehicle was also destroyed in the shelling, they said.
A curfew was imposed on Nasiriyah on Monday, and were still in effect yesterday.
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