Iraqi, U.S. forces start operation in Diyala

Iraqi infantry – supported by artillery, the Iraqi air force and U.S. forces – on Tuesday began what was described as a major operation in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad. Iraqi forces said they'd encountered no resistance to the crackdown, which the army had announced six days earlier.

Residents of Baqouba, the provincial capital, woke to find new checkpoints in neighborhoods throughout the city, but most people stayed in their houses. Troops arrested 20 suspected insurgents in the south and west quarters of the city, according to a spokesman for Ali Ghaidan, the commander of Iraqi ground troops in the province.

As many as 30,000 troops from the 4th and 8th Divisions of the Iraqi army were deployed, the spokesman said.

“The situation until now has been very good, and people are cooperating,” said the spokesman, who couldn't be identified under the ground rules that Ghaidan set. “Even those who run away will be chased, because authorities are gathering information (about their hiding places). We even know the places they went to, and we will chase them in all the provinces.”

The spokesman said the offensive's main aim is to clear the province and its suburbs “of terrorists and outlaws,” and the secondary aim is to secure the border with Iran.

Diyala province – predominantly Sunni Muslim Arab but with large Shiite Muslim Arab and Kurdish minorities – has been the scene of some of the bloodiest sectarian violence in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion, and remains one of the most restive – and lethal – provinces in the country.

During the worst years of the war, the Kurdish peshmerga militia operated in the north, while the largely Sunni al-Qaida in Iraq and allied groups such as Jaish al-Mujahedeen battled Shiite militias in the south and around Baqouba.

The Diyala offensive follows major operations in Baghdad's Sadr City district, Basra, Mosul and Amara. As with some of those operations, this one has been anticipated for weeks, giving insurgents ample time to escape.

“In Iraq nowadays we have no secrets,” said Taha Dira'a, a parliament member from Diyala. Nevertheless, he said, “I expect to have success and stability in this province.”

As in Amara and Basra – where police chiefs were removed just before or during the operations – there was a shakeup in Iraqi security forces in Diyala, with the dismissal Monday of Abdulkareem al-Rubai', the commander of military operations.

Kirkuk and Baghdad remained calm Tuesday after suicide attacks on Shiite pilgrims killed dozens and wounded hundreds Monday. As millions of pilgrims returned home, the government lifted a curfew on vehicular travel.