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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Iraq, U.S. launch offensive to eliminate Al Qaida leadership

BAGHDAD — Iraq and the United States have launched a major mop up operation to capture the Al Qaida leadership, now holed up in the Diyala province.

The two countries have contributed tens of thousands of forces for Operation Sabre Pursuit. Officials said the operation was meant to block the flight of Al Qaida operatives and capture network chief Abu Ayoub Al Masri.

"The first dynamic is employing our forces and controlling the area, the outskirts and the central of the city and not give the chance to any of the terrorist groups to control the city," Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mohammed Al Askari said. "The second dynamic is to pursue the terrorist groups and to seize all the weapons."

Officials said the operation, in which more than 50 Al Qaida suspects have already been arrested, would take place in two stages. In the initial stage, about 30,000 U.S. and Iraqi soldiers as well as Iraqi police were searching for Al Qaida operatives in southern Diyala.

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In August, the operation was expected to expand to include 50,000 troops — more than 40,000 contributed by Iraq — and include activities along the border with Iran. Officials said the intensive search for Al Qaida in Diyala would last several weeks.

"I don't think we need infantry from the coalition side," Al Askari told a briefing on July 30. "But we have coordinated our work to have a joint operation here."

On July 28, the U.S. military reported that Iraqi and U.S. soldiers discovered several weapons caches near Hamud in eastern Diyala. The military said soldiers from the Iraq Army's 5th Division unearthed 12 caches, including those that contained 60 mm mortar rounds and a rocket propelled grenade launcher.

"The operation started south of Balad Ruz to deny the area as a safe haven to criminals in the Diyala and Baghdad provinces and to pursue them wherever they may go," U.S. Lt. Col. Paul Calvert, a squadron commander at the Armored Cavalry Regiment, said. "Operations will continue to press forward until the objective has been accomplished."

Operation Sabre Pursuit began in eastern Diyala on July 26. Officials said U.S. and Iraqi military planners have considered the prospect that most of the Al Qaida leadership has fled toward the Syrian border.

"[There are] very tough conditions out there, very hot, very dry," U.S. military spokesman Brig. Gen. David Perkins said. "There's palm groves. There's other agricultural areas that provide enclaves and hiding areas for the terrorists. So, it just takes a lot of physical effort to go through this difficult terrain in very hot and demanding conditions."

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