( LatWp ) - Thousands of U.S. troops waged a new offensive against al-Qaida in Iraq north of the capital on Tuesday, focusing in particular on the extremist group's bomb-making facilities, while at least 60 people were killed and more than 85 wounded in a massive suicide truck blast at a Baghdad mosque, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.
American officials have said that the majority of car and truck bombs are built outside the capital by members of al-Qaida in Iraq, the Sunni-dominated insurgent group. But a preliminary investigation showed that the truck used in Tuesday's blast was rigged with TNT just 1,500 yards away from where it exploded, near the Shiite al-Khilani Mosque.
If that proves to be the case, it would mean that al-Qaida in Iraq has shifted strategies once again, this time in reaction to increased security efforts meant to control access to Baghdad.
In an interview on state-run al-Iraqiya television, Brig. Gen. Qassim Atta, an Iraqi spokesman for the four-month-old Baghdad security plan, suggested as much on Tuesday, saying that insurgents are now building car bombs inside Baghdad, hoping to avoid driving through the city and being detected at newly erected security checkpoints.
The stepped-up military operations in and around Baghdad were made possible by the deployment of almost 28,500 additional U.S. troops over the last four months. The buildup is meant to curb violence in Baghdad, but U.S. officials and military analysts have long warned that its success would hinge on pacifying the belt around the city.
The newest U.S. operation, called ``Arrowhead Ripper'' is taking place in Diyala province, a mixed Shiite-Sunni-Kurdish area bordering Iran that recently has become the most violent area in Iraq outside of the capital. U.S. officials said the offensive is expected to last at least 30 to 60 days.
Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman, said the bombing Tuesday ``demonstrates why Arrowhead Ripper and other operations we'll be conducting this summer are so important.''
``We have to find the car bombs and suicide bombers to prevent this from happening,'' he said.
About 10,000 soldiers are involved in Arrowhead Ripper, making it one of the largest military operations since the Iraq war began more than four years ago. It is focused around the city of Baqouba, located about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. The area has become a key stronghold for al-Qaida in Iraq, a flashpoint for sectarian and ethnic violence, and a transit point for money, weapons and munitions from Iran, U.S. officials say.
The offensive began under cover of darkness ``with a quick-strike nighttime air assault'' by the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, a U.S. military statement said.
Lt. Col. Joseph Davidson, executive officer of the 2nd Infantry Division, said in a telephone interview that about 4,000 U.S. combat forces began flushing out insurgents in the western area of Baqouba, where there was an ``entrenched population'' of al-Qaida fighters. He said the group had set up fighting positions across the city, lacing its streets with powerful ``deep-buried'' bombs capable of destroying U.S. armored vehicles.
Davidson said about 3,000 Iraqi soldiers and police were expected to take part in the offensive and that U.S. forces also were partnering with Sunni insurgents from the 1920 Revolution Brigades, which includes former members of ousted president Saddam Hussein's disbanded army.
In the first 24 hours, Davidson said, U.S. forces killed at least 30 insurgents. The U.S. military reported one soldier was killed and two were wounded during the operation when an explosion occurred near their vehicle.
``The end state is to destroy the al-Qaida influences in this province and eliminate their threat against the people,'' according to Brig. Gen. Mick Bednarek, deputy commanding officer of the 25th Infantry Division. ``That is the number one, bottom-line, upfront, in-your-face task and purpose.''
Although the U.S. military has killed numerous leaders and members of al-Qaida in Iraq, it has had limited success in efforts to crush the group, largely because it is a guerrilla force that studies U.S. and Iraqi tactics, learns from its mistakes, and quickly adjusts to new strategies, according to analysts.
U.S. officials say the group has perhaps several thousand members, most of whom are extremist Sunni Arabs from other countries. The group has kept violence in Iraq boiling with indiscriminate attacks against Shiite and Sunni targets, seeking to foment sectarian bloodshed and push Iraq toward civil war. U.S. officials believe al-Qaida in Iraq is the main sponsor of suicide bombings in the country; Garver called suicide attacks ``the favored weapon of al-Qaida.''
Tuesday's suicide attack in Baghdad was the 11th bombing in Iraq this year to result in more than 50 fatalities, although there were conflicting reports about the number of casualties. The Reuters and Associated Press news agencies both reported 78 dead and more than 200 wounded; Atta, the spokesman for the Baghdad security plan, said in a telephone interview that at least 60 were killed and more than 85 were wounded; the U.S. military, which said it had units nearby that rendered aid, said that 35 people were killed and 65 were wounded.
The blast occurred about 1:45 pm outside the mosque in the bustling Sinak commercial district of central Baghdad. The attack followed a relative calm that had accompanied a four-day curfew.
Shortly after Tuesday's blast, Iraqi television showed black smoke billowing above the Iraqi skyline as people on the street screamed in anguish. Part of the wall surrounding the al-Khilani mosque was turned to rubble by the blast, storefronts were crumbled and on fire, and more than a dozen nearby cars were set ablaze.
Residents walked through the area collecting body parts and unrecognizable chunks of flesh.
Jabbar Mohammed al-Kaissi, 62, said he had just hopped out of his car and run across the street to fill a five-liter gas can when a truck carrying what he estimated was 60 canisters of gas exploded, sending canisters flying through the air, creating secondary explosions when they landed as far as 100 yards away.
``A ball of fire rose in the air,'' Kaissi said, adding that when he turned to look at the car where his wife and three daughters were waiting, he saw the wall of the mosque tumble on top of it. ``I was frozen by the shock,'' he said from al-Kindi Hospital, where he took his family, all of whom died in the blast. ``As I rushed to the car to see if I could save any of them, the gas canisters started to explode one after the other.''
In other developments, a U.S. soldier was killed Monday by small-arms fire during combat operations in eastern Baghdad, the U.S. military reported Tuesday. Another soldier was killed and three were wounded south of Baghdad Monday when their patrol was struck by a roadside bomb while they were going to the aide of another soldier wounded by an earlier explosion, the U.S. military said in a statement.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sacked the police chief in Basra, in southern Iraq, after weekend blasts destroyed two Sunni mosques in and around the city, the Associated Press reported. Witnesses said that local Basra police appeared to do little to stop the bombing attacks on the two mosques, which were in retaliation for bombings last Wednesday at a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad, that destroyed two minarets.
Meanwhile, the auxiliary bishop of Baghdad, Monsignor Shlemon Warduni, said that the Rev. Hani Abdel Ahad, a Chaldean Catholic priest kidnapped in Baghdad on June 6, was released on Sunday, according to the Catholic new agency Misna. Four youths abducted with Ahad had been released shortly after the kidnapping, Warduni said. He confirmed that the kidnappers had demanded a ransom for Ahad's release, Misna reported. It did not say if the ransom had been paid.