ZAHMM, Iraq – The U.S. military launched a major offensive early Tuesday against one of the largest known redoubts of al-Qaida in Iraq, part of a new nationwide campaign to destroy remaining pockets of the Sunni insurgency.
The unusually large attack by 5,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops in volatile Diyala province reflects growing concern that success in rooting the group out of Baghdad and Anbar province to the west has driven its members to northern areas such as the Diyala River Valley and the city of Mosul.
U.S. officials said an estimated 200 fighters from al-Qaida in Iraq created a mini-state here in what Americans call the Bread Basket, a 50-square-mile, shoe-shaped region northeast of Baghdad that stretches from the northern Diyala River to a parallel canal to the east. Residents said the fighters, whom some described as foreigners, imposed curfews and strict interpretations of sharia, or Islamic law.
The U.S. troop buildup that began last year and success in fighting al-Qaida in Iraq elsewhere in the country have, for the first time in two years, freed up enough troops to wage a full-scale assault and establish a continued presence in this area, U.S. commanders said. They said the Iraqi military is sending up to a full battalion from Anbar in the coming days to help hold the territory.
The offensive was intended to surprise al-Qaida in Iraq, a mostly Iraqi insurgent group that the U.S. military contends is led by foreigners, and to prevent its fighters from escaping by deploying troops to surround the area.
But Lt. Col. Rod Coffey, 45, of Anne Arundel County, Md., who leads the squadron that first attacked the area, said initial reports from villagers indicated that many of the Sunni insurgents, fearing a U.S. offensive, had left more than a week ago. He estimated that 50 to 75 fighters remained.
“They created a sharia anti-state that terrorized the Iraqi citizens here,” Coffey said in Zahmm, a village where he and his men spent the night in a crumbling, unoccupied house enclosed by a mud wall.
Coffey’s unit, the 3rd Squadron of the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, entered the Bread Basket at 3 a.m. Tuesday, but other units had been laying the groundwork for weeks. Early Monday morning, Special Operations forces started moving in from the northwest as two battalions began to circle the area like a closing noose.
U.S. troops killed at least four suspected insurgents and detained three, officers said.
“I think the enemy’s preferred course of action right now is to escape,” said Col. Jon Lehr, commander of U.S. forces in Diyala.
But the insurgents left deadly hazards for the Americans. At least a dozen roadside and car bombs have been discovered. One exploded Tuesday near a Stryker, an eight-wheel combat vehicle, injuring three soldiers, Coffey said.
More casualties were likely avoided because of tips from villagers, who identified explosives left by the insurgents. One man helped U.S. soldiers find and detonate a car bomb in Zahmm, which filled the night sky with dark smoke for hours. The man was promised a $100 reward.
Villagers encountered on Tuesday told the Americans of mistreatment by the Sunni insurgents. In one town, locals said al-Qaida in Iraq imposed curfews from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. every day.
“Al-Qaida said, ‘You must all work for us now,’ ” Sgt. Patrick Martin, of Saratoga, N.Y., recalled villagers telling him.