In one of the deadliest stretches for U.S. troops in months, militants killed nine soldiers in the volatile Sunni Arab heartlands north...
ARAB HAMADAH, Iraq — In one of the deadliest stretches for U.S. troops in months, militants killed nine soldiers in the volatile Sunni Arab heartlands north of Baghdad as the military launched its third offensive in a year to dislodge Sunni guerrillas from sanctuaries deep within the lush farmlands and palm groves of Diyala province.
Six of the U.S. soldiers were killed Wednesday at an unspecified location in Diyala in part of the offensive when insurgents detonated a large bomb hidden inside a house. Four other soldiers were wounded, and an Iraqi interpreter was killed.
The military did not release further information, but in Diyala, northeast of Baghdad, house bombs have long been a staple weapon for Sunni fighters who try to lure soldiers inside booby-trapped buildings.
Three U.S. soldiers were also killed Tuesday in neighboring Salahuddin province, where fighting has been fierce recently between Sunni extremists and Sunni militiamen who have allied with U.S. forces.
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Coming after months of declining U.S. casualties, the attacks were another sign that insurgents remain very strong in the Sunni-dominated cities and countryside north of the capital.
Sixteen U.S. servicemen have died already this year, mostly north of Baghdad, and Sunni militants have carried out devastating attacks in Diyala against Sunni militiamen who recently joined forces with U.S. troops.
Five severed heads were discovered on a road leading into the provincial capital of Baquba on Monday. The killers used blood to scrawl a gruesome warning in Arabic across the foreheads: Join the U.S.-backed militias “and you will end up like this.”
While the Diyala insurgents have been striking hard at U.S. soldiers and their Sunni militia allies, the commander of U.S. ground troops in northern Iraq acknowledged on Wednesday that many of the militants targeted in the new offensive had fled in advance, possibly from being tipped off.
“I’m sure there’s active leaking of communication,” said the northern commander, Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling.
Encountering insurgent booby traps but few evident insurgents, troops in armored Stryker units advanced through the Diyala River Valley on Wednesday during the second day of the offensive. Soldiers passed through deserted streets on patrols aimed at driving extremist Islamist factions from their strongholds north of Baquba.
Speaking to reporters in Baghdad, Hertling identified insecure Iraqi army communications as a possible reason why their targets managed to slip through the net, as may have happened before an offensive in Baquba last June. He noted that the Iraqi forces rely on unsecured cellphones and radios.
However, Hertling said forces would continue to hunt al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, the homegrown Sunni insurgent group that the U.S. military says is led by foreigners. He described the Diyala offensive as part of a wider operation to kill or capture al-Qaida fighters across the country.
Hertling said that in his northern command, 24,000 U.S. troops, 50,000 Iraq soldiers and 80,000 Iraqi police officers are involved in the hunt. He said that in Diyala province, 20 to 30 Qaida fighters had been killed since the start of the current operation.
The 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, based at Fort Lewis, is playing a major role in the new Iraq offensive.
The brigade of some 3,800 soldiers deployed from the post last spring for a 15-month tour. They patrol in eight-wheeled, high-tech Stryker vehicles that have become a mainstay of the U.S. military in Iraq.
The objective of the military offensive, known as Iron Harvest, part of the nationwide Operation Phantom Phoenix, is to begin ousting Sunni Muslim militants from their stronghold in four of Iraq’s northern provinces this week. Tamim, Salahuddin, Nineveh and especially the agricultural lands of Diyala 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.
Planners said before the operation that the Diyala Valley, known as the Breadbasket, was a stronghold for extremist groups including al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, the Islamic State of Iraq and Ansar al Sunna.
But as soldiers moved in from the north on the second day of the offensive, they found little sign of the 200 or so insurgents thought to be operating there.
In villages around the insurgents’ supposed nerve center, residents confirmed that carloads of armed and masked men operated freely until recently. Some residents said the gunmen left after being alerted to the operation by increased helicopter traffic.
As the regiment moved through vineyards and canals, 1st Lt. David Moore said the dense vegetation posed the greatest threat.
“None of us is afraid of the firefights, the guns and all that,” Moore said. “It is the deep-
buried stuff that you can’t see. I don’t think we have lost anybody from our company in a firefight; we have only lost people from explosions.”
But even before news emerged of the fatal attack, officers voiced fears that as the days passed and they penetrated deeper into al-Qaida strongholds, house bombs would come more into play.
“We have seen them use houses before, in Baghdad, and as we moved through the outlying villages yesterday they had time to prepare,” 1st Lt. Max Ferguson cautioned his men on Wednesday.
Seattle Times staff reporter Hal Bernton contributed to this report, which includes information from McClatchy Newspapers.