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Troop surge in Iraq strikes at militants

Weapons caches, havens targeted

Iraqi soldiers guarded blindfolded suspects yesterday in the restive city of Baqubah. Coalition forces staged simultaneous raids across the country with Operation Phantom Strike. Iraqi soldiers guarded blindfolded suspects yesterday in the restive city of Baqubah. Coalition forces staged simultaneous raids across the country with Operation Phantom Strike. (str/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

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

The US-led commando operations targeted Al Qaeda in Iraq and Shi'ite Muslim militants by striking at reported safe 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 touted by US military officials as the culmination of the deployment of nearly 30,000 more US 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 Major General Rick Lynch, whose Task Force Marne waged strikes on insurgent nests in the volatile Tigris and Euphrates river valleys.

US officials blame foreign fighters and Shi'ite 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 that at least 60 others escaped.

The US military did not disclose casualty figures.

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.

Elsewhere in Iraq yesterday, four US soldiers were killed, the military said. Three died in an explosion near their vehicle in northern Ninevah province, and the other died during fighting in Baghdad.

In Samarra, US forces raiding a house failed to find a suspected leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq and arrested his three brothers.

In Karbala, Major General Salih Hasoon said his troops managed to arrest an Al Qaeda 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 US 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 US-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 Shi'ite death squads attacked with virtual impunity.

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

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 Maliki's Shi'ite-dominated government.