Iraqi political leaders prepared for a crisis council yesterday as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sought to save his crumbling government. About 16,000 US and Iraqi troops began a new operation north of Baghdad targeting insurgents who have fled a crackdown in the restive city of Baqubah, the military said.
A suicide truck bomb killed two people, wounded five and badly damaged a bridge linking Baghdad to northern Iraq yesterday, Iraqi security forces said.
Part of the bridge collapsed in the attack near Taiji, in which a fuel tanker was used.
One side of the bridge was badly damaged in a previous bombing on May 11.
Local officials, meanwhile, said four civilians, including a three-year-old girl, were killed yesterday during a raid by joint US-Iraqi forces in Baghdad's Shiite district of Sadr City. The US military said four militants were killed after a fierce gunfight, but it had no reports of civilian deaths.
Operation Lightning Hammer, which began late on Monday with an air assault, was part of a broader US push announced on Monday to build on successes in Baghdad and surrounding areas by targeting al-Qaeda in Iraq and Iranian-allied Shiite militia fighters nationwide.
Major General Benjamin Mixon, the commander of US forces in northern Iraq, said the troops were pursuing al-Qaeda cells that had been disrupted and forced into hiding by previous operations.
"Our main goal with Lightning Hammer is to eliminate the terrorist organizations ... and show them that they truly have no safehaven -- especially in Diyala," he said in a statement.
The military did not immediately provide results from the operation because it was in the beginning stages.
Spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Michael Donnelly said the effort would not interrupt operations in Baqubah, where US forces have flushed out al-Qaeda and Shiite militiamen who had fomented a virtual civil war there.
"We are not drawing down in Baqubah at all, in fact, we are in the build and hold portion of the operation there," he said.
The military has claimed success in quelling the violence in the city, 60km northeast of Baghdad, as well as in the capital, but it also acknowledges that Shiite and Sunni extremists fled to outlying areas where attacks have been increasing.
The sinking fortunes of al-Maliki and his Shiite-led administration have become something of a second front for Washington.
Al-Maliki appeared to have cleared the way, with a last-minute push from US Ambassador Ryan Crocker, for a crisis council that seeks to save his crumbling government, but the timing of the meeting was uncertain.
Al-Maliki's government -- a shaky coalition of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds -- has been gutted by boycotts and defections. A full-scale disintegration could touch off power grabs on all sides and seriously complicate US-led efforts to stabilize Iraq.
Al-Maliki has struggled over the past days to pull together a summit of Iraq's main religious and ethnic groups. The meeting finally appeared likely after Crocker called on Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, the lone Sunni Arab invited to the talks. Al-Hashemi's attendance had been in question.
A senior US official, who spoke in Baghdad, said Monday that the stage was set for major changes in the "structure, nature and direction of the Iraqi state." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of the planned gathering.