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U.S. says 10,000 troops in major Iraq offensive

Reuters | June 19, 2007
Dean Yates

The U.S. military deployed 10,000 soldiers backed by attack helicopters in an offensive against al Qaeda north of Baghdad on Tuesday, in one of the biggest operations since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In the capital, a car bomb killed 60 people and wounded at least 80 near the Shi'ite Khilani mosque in the city centre, police said. Rescuers could be seen dragging bodies from the mosque, which was badly damaged.

The explosion followed a relatively quiet period in Baghdad after a four-day curfew was imposed last week in the wake of an attack on a revered Shi'ite shrine in the city of Samarra.

The U.S. military said 22 militants were killed in the early hours of the offensive against al Qaeda around the city of Baquba in Diyala province, a stronghold of the group.

"The end state is to destroy the al Qaeda influences in this province and eliminate their threat against the people," Brigadier-General Mick Bednarek, deputy commanding general, operations, 25th Infantry Division, said in a statement.

"That is the number one, bottom-line, up-front, in-your-face, task and purpose."

U.S. military commanders said they were taking advantage of the completion of a build-up of American forces in Iraq under a crackdown in Baghdad that began four months ago. The crackdown has forced many militants to move to areas around the capital.

The statement said about 10,000 soldiers, backed by attack helicopters, close air support and armored fighting vehicles were taking part in Operation Arrowhead Ripper.

It did not say how long the offensive would last. But it coincides with smaller operations launched in recent days against al Qaeda in Iraq targets around Baghdad.

"It's certainly one of the largest since the end of ground operations in 2003," U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher Garver told Reuters when asked to describe the significance of the operation.

Residents in Baquba, capital of Diyala, said heavy and continual explosions had been echoing around the city since before dawn. Baquba, 65 km (40 miles) north of Baghdad, was under total curfew, they added.

The U.S. military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and President George W. Bush have both called al Qaeda "public enemy number one" in Iraq.

U.S. officials say the group is trying to tip Iraq into full-scale sectarian civil war with a wave of car bomb attacks and other acts of violence.

The operation comes just days after the U.S. military said it had completed its troop build-up in Iraq to 160,000 soldiers.

Nearly 28,000 additional troops have been sent, mainly to Baghdad but also to western Anbar province to try to haul Iraq back from the brink of civil war. The crackdown has prompted many militants to migrate from Baghdad into Diyala.

(Additional reporting by Paul Tait and Alister Bull)

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