Iraqi and U.S. forces attack rebel hide-outs

Officials say at least 17 insurgents were captured

August 14, 2007|By Carol J. Williams | Carol J. Williams,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Helicopter gunships attacked suspected insurgent hide-outs and U.S. and Iraqi soldiers staged simultaneous raids across Iraq yesterday as coalition forces unleashed the full force of the U.S. troop buildup with Operation Phantom Strike.

The U.S.-led commando operations targeted al-Qaida in Iraq and Shiite Muslim militants by striking at reported havens, weapons caches and bomb-building sites here and in other violence-plagued areas throughout the country.

At least 17 suspected insurgent leaders were captured, and dozens of improvised explosive devices were seized and disarmed, military officials said.

The operation was described by U.S. military officials as the culmination of the deployment of nearly 30,000 more U.S. troops into Iraq in recent months. It followed recent coalition offensives aimed at flushing militants from their support zones, disrupting supply lines and capturing or killing "high-value" suspects.

"The intent is to keep the enemy on the run," said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, whose Task Force Marne waged strikes on insurgent nests in the volatile Tigris and Euphrates river valleys.

U.S. officials blame foreign fighters and Shiite militias allegedly aided by Iran for the violence that every month kills nearly 100 American soldiers and thousands of Iraqi troops, police and civilians. Witnesses in Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah, Mosul and Samarra reported seeing helicopters sweep over suspected insurgent hide-outs, blasting them with rockets. A senior Iraqi army officer in Fallujah said 15 insurgents were killed but at least 60 others escaped.

The U.S. military did not disclose casualty figures.

Police in East Baghdad reported at least two U.S. convoys hit explosive devices, including a Humvee that was destroyed and its occupants killed or badly injured. The attack could not be confirmed independently.

Coalition officials said dozens of strategists and financiers were arrested. A senior source in the Badr militia near the southern city of Najaf said a man detained in that holy city was not associated with the fighters he was alleged to be commanding.

In Samarra, U.S. forces raiding a house failed to find a suspected leader of al-Qaida in Iraq and arrested his three brothers.

In Karbala, Maj. Gen. Salih Hasoon said his troops arrested an al-Qaida leader who had infiltrated the local police force and paid officers as much as $10,000 to release jailed suspects.

Authorities said at least six civilians died in the air and ground attacks, including a man in Hillah who was shot in the chest after he approached a U.S. convoy.

Lynch said the drive against militants was doing more than simply moving them from one refuge to another, as some previous operations did. His troops were blocking expected escape routes and capturing what he termed "high-value individuals" behind the violence.

Despite the U.S.-led crackdown, sectarian attacks continued. Gunmen stopped the car of Sunni tribal leader Sheikh Shalan Abdul Karim Issawi in Diyala Province, seizing him and a bodyguard. The manager of a refugee charity office in Basra was also kidnapped, presumably for ransom or leverage with rival forces.

In Baghdad, 18 bullet-riddled bodies, presumed to be of victims of death squads, were found yesterday morning.

Clashes and intimidation intended to drive Sunnis out of mixed provinces have intensified since Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki formed his government last year, as Shiite death squads attacked with virtual impunity.

Seventeen of the 37 Cabinet posts in al-Maliki's government are vacant because of boycotts by non-Shiite members to protest what they see as officially sanctioned persecution.

Al-Maliki's appeal for a crisis conference today to forge national unity appeared to have fallen on deaf ears, with the leading Sunni Arab leader contending he hadn't been formally invited and another placing what probably will be seen as unreasonable demands for sharing power with al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government.

Vice President Tariq Hashimi, a moderate Sunni, said he would take part if all other faction leaders did. Hamid Hais of the Anbar Salvation Council, another Sunni Arab faction, said he would participate if al-Maliki gave his bloc three important Cabinet posts it had been denied. Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni Arab leaders met among themselves.

In other developments, the Iraqi High Tribunal announced yesterday that it would put 15 former loyalists of former dictator Saddam Hussein on trial Aug. 21 on charges connected with the suppression of a Shiite uprising in 1991, including Ali Hassan Majid, or "Chemical Ali."

Carol J. Williams writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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