your connection to The Boston Globe

Coalition forces attack militants at Baghdad's flanks

Fighters fled city in earlier strike

Women sipped tea as the man of the house, suspected of being a terrorist bomb financier, spoke with US troops in Baghdad. (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

BAGHDAD -- US and Iraqi forces launched attacks on Baghdad's northern and southern flanks to clear out Sunni insurgents, Al Qaeda fighters, and Shi'ite militiamen who had fled the capital and Anbar during a four-month-old security operation, military officials said yesterday.

A top US military official said American forces were taking advantage of the arrival of the final brigade of 30,000 additional US troops to open the concerted attacks.

"We are going into the areas that have been sanctuaries of Al Qaeda and other extremists to take them on and weed them out, to help get the areas clear and to really take on Al Qaeda," the senior official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the operation. "Those are areas in the belts around Baghdad, some parts in Anbar Province and specifically Diyala Province."

Al Qaeda has proven to be an extremely agile foe for US and Iraqi forces, as shown by its ability to transfer major operations to Diyala's provincial capital of Baqouba from Anbar Province, the sprawling desert region in western Iraq. There is no guarantee that driving the organization out of current sanctuaries would prevent it from migrating to other regions to continue the fight.

The death toll in sectarian violence yesterday skyrocketed after a brief period of relative peace. At least 111 people were killed or found dead nationwide, with 33 bodies of torture victims showing up in Baghdad .

Well to the south, Iraqi officials reported as many as 36 people were killed in fierce overnight fighting that began as British and Iraqi forces conducted house-to-house searches in Amarah, a stronghold of the Shi'ite Mahdi Army militia.

The US military issued a statement that said at least 20 people were killed in clashes with coalition forces. A spokeswoman for Britain's Ministry of Defense said British soldiers played a supporting role to Iraqi security forces during the raid and fighting in Amarah. She spoke on condition of anonymity, which is ministry policy.

The operations on Baghdad's flanks were opened by the US Third Infantry Division, which has taken over dangerous Al Qaeda-infested regions to the south. The division began its drive into the Salman Pak and Arab Jabour districts on the city's southeastern fringe over the weekend.

At the time, ground forces commander Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno said US troops were heading into those areas in force for the first time in three years.

The military said in a statement yesterday that fighter jets dropped "four precision-guided bombs" in support of 1,200 US soldiers from the Third Infantry as they started moving on Al Qaeda targets.

Military officials said Multi-National Division-North forces likewise were increasing pressure on Al Qaeda sanctuaries northeast of the capital in the verdant orange and palm groves of Diyala, one of the most fiercely contested regions in Iraq.

The province is a tangle of Shi'ite and Sunni villages that has played into the hands of Al Qaeda and allied militants who have melted into the tense region and sought to inflame existing sectarian troubles.

Some Sunni tribes, which had fought with or offered sanctuary to Al Qaeda in Anbar Province, have risen up against the group and are now receiving arms and training from US forces. American military officials are trying to spread that success to Al Qaeda areas now under attack.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite, told visiting Defense Minister William Gates last week that the United States should stop arming Sunnis who may have been part of the insurgency, according to officials in his office. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information. Maliki repeated that position in a television interview in Baghdad yesterday .

The fighting in Amarah, the US military said in a statement, was a targeted operation against what the coalition said were members of a "secret cell" that imported weapons made in Iran known as "explosively formed penetrators." The cells were also suspected of bringing militants from Iraq to Iran for terror training.

A doctor at Amarah's general hospital said 36 bodies had been taken to his facility, though he could not determine how many were militiamen and how many were civilians. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media.

More than 100 people were wounded in the fighting, and at least three of those killed were Iraqi policemen, according to police and hospital officials.

Coalition forces came under small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenade attacks during the raids, and called in air support, the US military statement said. The suspects were killed by fire from aircraft, it said, without disclosing whether the forces were American or British.

Iraqi police said the Mahdi Army, the militia commanded by radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, was involved in the clashes .