BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. commanders announced the start of a major offensive outside Baghdad on Saturday aimed at flushing out al-Qaida-linked fighters who use the lawless region to unleash attacks on the capital.
The offensive began before dawn Saturday and is expected to last several weeks, said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, who oversees four provinces south of Baghdad, the capital.
The operation is in the region where three U.S. soldiers were captured in an ambush last month. The military reported Saturday that the identification cards of the two still-missing soldiers were recovered in a recent raid on a suspected al-Qaida-linked safe house north of Baghdad.
The find, 75 miles from where the men disappeared, was evidence of the ability of insurgents to move across wide distances, despite a troop buildup in Baghdad and surrounding areas.
U.S. commanders acknowledge that militants have the advantage of being able to blend into the population. But military spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said a search of the area yielded no evidence that the missing soldiers had been held at the house where their IDs were found June 9. The focus of U.S. search efforts remained in the region south of Baghdad where they were captured, he said.
The house also contained computers, video production equipment, rifles and ammunition, according to a military statement. There was a gunfight as U.S. soldiers approached the building near Samarra, and two soldiers were injured. But no one was found inside, the statement said.
Spc. Alex R. Jimenez of Lawrence, Mass., and Pvt. Byron W. Fouty of Waterford, Mich., disappeared after an attack on their patrol May 12 outside Yousifiya, a town about 10 miles south of Baghdad. The body of a third soldier captured with them, Pfc. Joseph J. Anzack Jr. of Torrance, Calif., was later pulled from the Euphrates River nearby. Four other Americans and an Iraqi soldier serving as an interpreter died in the initial assault.
The Islamic State of Iraq, an insurgent umbrella group, later released a video claiming it had killed the three captives. The video, posted on the Internet, included footage of the men’s IDs but offered no proof that they were dead.
With pressure mounting in Washington, D.C., for results in Iraq, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived late Friday on an unannounced visit to assess progress implementing the security crackdown launched in mid-February.
After being briefed by U.S. commanders and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, he met Iraqi leaders to press for action on reforms that U.S. officials believe will encourage reconciliation between the country’s warring ethnic and religious factions. They include a reversal of a ban on government jobs for members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party and a fair distribution of the country’s massive oil wealth.