BAGHDAD (AFP) â€” US and Iraqi troops stepped up a massive offensive against suspected Al Qaeda strongholds northeast of Baghdad on Wednesday, killing at least 30 alleged insurgents, the US military said.The launch of the operation on Tuesday was followed by a massive truck bomb at a Shiite mosque in Baghdad that left at least 87 people dead. Around 7,500 US troops and 2,500 Iraqi forces poured into the provincial capital of Baqouba in Diyala province, which has been riddled with insurgent attacks in recent months.
The operation is part of what US military officials say is a new strategy of using reinforcements from the recently completed troop “surge” to launch simultaneous assaults on insurgents across Iraq.
“You are going to see persistent operations simultaneously conducted and well coordinated throughout all of the different provinces in all of Iraq,” Rear Admiral Mark Fox told a news conference on Wednesday.
“We are now seeing the true surge at its full force.” In Baqouba helicopters whizzed overhead as armoured vehicles pushed through the pockmarked streets in the largest single assault since US forces invaded the western city of Fallujah in November 2004.
“These criminals will know no safe place to hide in Diyala,” Brigadier General Mick Bednarek said in a statement released by the US military.
“The people of Diyala are tired of the terror and violence these Al Qaeda thugs have brought to their province and are cooperating with us in order to root them out.” In addition to killing 30 suspected Al Qaeda gunmen, US and Iraqi forces uncovered several weapons caches, including four homemade bombs in homes and another 10 bombs buried underground, the US military said.
“This operation is just beginning and we will continue to strike Al Qaeda no matter where they hide and we won’t rest until the job is done,” added Bednarek.
As US and Iraqi reinforcements have surged into Baghdad in recent months, insurgents have mounted increasing attacks outside the capital, particularly in Diyala.
Their attacks have been increasingly sophisticated, often combining ambushes, roadside bombs and snipers, making the area in and around Baqouba one of the deadliest in Iraq.
But they have also kept up a deadly drumbeat of attacks inside Baghdad. On Tuesday, a truck loaded with explosives and gas canisters detonated outside a Shiite mosque, killing at least 87 people, security and health officials said.
The attack, which also wounded more than 240 people, was the worst bombing in Baghdad in two months.
Giving fresh details of the attack, senior Iraqi army spokesman, Brigadier General Qassim Atta, said that it was a suicide operation.
He also told reporters the payload of half a tonne of TNT and some 50 fuel tanks was assembled in a spare parts market near the mosque where Iraqi forces have confiscated large caches of weapons and explosives.
In spite of Tuesday’s attack, Fox defended the launch of large-scale operations outside the capital and denied the tactic was simply “chasing terrorists” into new flashpoints like Diyala.
“Diyala was hard and we were dealing with problems up there last year well before we reached the point where we’d turned the corner in Anbar,” he said, referring to a western Sunni province where tribes have joined with US forces to fight the insurgency.
At least one US soldier was killed in fighting in Diyala province on Tuesday, the military said. It also announced the death of another soldier in a roadside bombing south of the capital on Monday.
The deaths took the military’s losses to at least 45 during this month alone and to 3,522 since the March 2003 invasion, according to an AFP count based on Pentagon figures.
A British soldier was also killed Wednesday in the southern city of Basra, London said. Some 152 British troops have died in Iraq since the invasion.
Six policemen were killed in separate attacks, including three in a car bombing of a checkpoint north of Ramadi in Anbar province, police Lieutenant Colonel Jabbar Dulaimi told AFP.
Eight Christians â€” five university professors and three students â€” were also kidnapped while riding in a bus from the northern city of Mosul to their home village, police Brigadier General Mohammed Wagga told AFP.
The Catholic news agency Asianews reported that the bus was stopped by a number of vehicles and the hostage-takers read out a list with the names of the people they wanted to get off the bus.