US, Iraq launch anti-extremist operation

(AP)- The U.S. military launched a countrywide offensive Tuesday against al- Qaida in Iraq's efforts to regroup and intensify suicide strikes on civilians who have sided with the Americans against the terror group.

But the latest U.S. blitz brings more than just firepower to the field - a determination to speed up work on basic services and other civic projects that commanders believe will win more converts to the American effort.

The No. 2 U.S. commander, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno , announced the new operation - named Phantom Phoenix - and took pains to say it would focus on bettering Iraqi lives as well as on attacks against al- Qaida .

"The non-lethal aspects of this operation are designed to improve delivery of essential services, economic development and local governance capacity," the military statement said.

By emphasizing that the offensive was twofold, the Pentagon appeared to acknowledge that it will be difficult to maintain lower levels of violence without swaying more support from the streets - particularly as al- Qaida is waging a renewed campaign of suicide attacks in recent weeks against America's new Sunni allies.

The Pentagon's emphasis on the "non-lethal" aspects of the operation - while vague - indicates Washington feared the window could slam shut on ongoing successes in recruiting former enemies, many of whom are being paid $300 a month by the U.S. military.

There has been increasing frustration among American military and political leaders that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki , a Shiite Muslim, has been hesitant to embrace the so-called "Awakening Council" movement - mainly among Sunnis - that has seen about 70,000 men switch sides and join the Americans against al- Qaida .

Sunni tribal leaders have complained bitterly that al- Maliki was foot-dragging on getting central government money and expertise into Sunni-dominated areas now that violence there has greatly diminished.

The Americans have been pressuring al- Maliki , with only limited success, to bring the new American allies into the Iraqi military and police forces and to form and fund civilian labor corps with others who would work to rebuild devastated regions.

The U.S. military already has spent vast sums on public works projects nationwide in attempts to improve schools, boost electricity and potable water service, pave roads and rebuild sewer systems.

But Tuesday's announcement appears to have been the first American operation that publicly declared an intention to at once kill and capture al- Qaida fighters while pushing to improve the lives of Iraqi people in other ways.

The statement from Odierno said the division and brigade-level operation would "synchronize lethal and non-lethal effects to exploit recent security gains and disrupt terrorist support zones and enemy command and control."

U.S. commanders credit the Sunni backlash against the terror group with helping reduce violence over the past six months. But devastating attacks persist even as Iraqi casualties are down by 55 percent nationwide since June 2007, according to an Associated Press count, and al- Qaida leader Osama bin Laden condemned the new American allies in an audiotape released Dec. 29.

The recent bombings are the clearest indication that al- Qaida in Iraq - believed to consist mainly of Iraqis but to have foreign leadership - is worried about losing the support of fellow Sunni Arabs, U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner said last week.

The attacks come as the extremists have been pushed out of their former stronghold in Anbar province west of Baghdad to the east and north, and appear to be concentrated in Diyala province to the northeast of the capital and in Mosul to the far north.

"Al- Qaida in Iraq is attempting to regain strength and establish new support areas in northern Iraq," said Lt. Col. James Hutton, a spokesman for the U.S. military. "AQI has fled its former sanctuaries and remains a dangerous foe."

U.S. and Iraqi forces will "continue to pursue al- Qaida and other extremists wherever they attempt to take sanctuary," Odierno said. "We are determined not to allow these brutal elements to have respite anywhere in Iraq."

On Monday, a double suicide bombing in Baghdad's northern Azamiyah district killed 12 people, including former police Col. Riyadh al- Samarrai , a key leader of the local Awakening Council.

Banners erected by the Awakening Council bearing words of condolence hung on walls and at intersections in Azamiyah on Tuesday. A three-day funeral was planned for al- Samarrai .

The switch of allegiance by insurgents in Azamiyah was one of the most significant in a series of similar moves across Baghdad's Sunni neighborhoods. Azamiyah is home to Iraq's most revered Sunni shrine, the mosque of Imam Abu Hanifa , and many in the area served as officers in Saddam Hussein's army and security agencies.

In a separate attack, police said Tuesday that gunmen kidnapped eight members of a newly formed U.S.-backed Shiite armed group in northern Baghdad's Shaab neighborhood, one of the capital's most dangerous areas and a center for outlawed Shiite fighters.

The men had been manning a checkpoint when they were seized Monday night, a police officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information. Last Sunday, the head of the group, Sheik Ismaiel Abbas , was shot to death in Shaab .

Elsewhere in the capital Tuesday, the head of the municipality of Baghdad's primarily Sunni neighborhood of Yarmouk was killed when a bomb attached to his car exploded, a police officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information.

To the south, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives at a checkpoint manned by police special forces in the Madain area, about 15 miles southeast of Baghdad, killing two members of the special forces and wounding five people, police said.

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