BAGHDAD — As thousands of newly minted police officers in mismatched uniforms moved Saturday to cinch a security chokehold around this Iraqi capital, insurgents continued to lash out across the rest of the country.
Nearly 40 people were killed in 24 hours in a rash of suicide bombings, assassinations and ambushes, from the northern city of Sinjar to the western border with Syria and the town of Hillah south of Baghdad. Even with the capital cordoned off, militants managed to lob four mortar rounds into a factory on the outskirts, killing a watchman.
The Iraqi government's "Operation Lightning," announced two days in advance by the defense and interior ministers, will deploy 40,000 police officers and national guardsmen in the first major Iraqi-led offensive against an insurgency that has killed nearly 700 Iraqis in the weeks since Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari and his Cabinet were sworn in May 3.
That concentration of forces represents at least a fourth of all Iraqi security personnel, raising concern among some in this violence-plagued country that the architects of the massive sweep of the capital have left the rest of Iraq unprotected.
"Every time they start an operation in one region, they forget about the others, so the terrorists run to the exposed places," said Ammar Khazal, 33, who owns a clothing shop. He lamented the announcement Thursday of the operation, giving insurgents a two-day window to slip out of Baghdad.
Nabil Issa, a 58-year-old linguist, predicted that the militants would launch retaliatory operations as soon as the campaign of searches and roadblocks eased.
Military analysts defended the operation, including its advance announcement, as an overdue confrontation with the insurgents, who have killed at least 20 senior government officials this month. Doctors, scientists and other professionals are afraid to leave their homes.
"One of the strategies is to get them to try to leave Baghdad for the provinces," Mohammed Askari, a retired general from Saddam Hussein's disbanded army, said of the hundreds, if not thousands, of insurgents they hope to flush out of Baghdad. "If they try to go west or to Diyala province [to the northeast], it will be easy to pursue them."
The operation, to be aided by about 7,000 U.S. troops and smaller contingents from other foreign forces, got off to an inauspicious start. Police set up the first of an expected 675 checkpoints along the capital's outskirts before dawn, but shortly after noon, the units stationed on the dangerous road leading to the western suburb of Abu Ghraib left the checkpoints unmanned. A source at the Interior Ministry said some of the stop-and-search teams were designed to be "mobile."
With the Abu Ghraib prison already holding thousands of detainees, it was unclear where anyone arrested in the crackdown would be held. In a preliminary sweep last weekend, more than 430 people were detained.
Government officials denied that channeling so many police and special forces to Baghdad would leave other areas vulnerable.
"The deployment of such numbers in Baghdad won't influence the security situation in other provinces. We have more than 160,000 Iraqi police now," said Col. Adnan Abdulrahman, an Interior Ministry spokesman. "In addition, we have the multinational troops ready to help us if they are needed."
In Sadr City, a Shiite Muslim district loyal to Muqtada Sadr, the word on the street was that forces loyal to the rebel cleric planned to cooperate with the government offensive.
Authorities probably announced details of the operation ahead of time to explain the highly visible force movements, Iraqi and U.S. officials noted.
"It's kind of hard to hide the size of these movements and the amount of police and military forces, from the Iraqi side, that will be needed," said Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition.
"They're going on the offensive. They're putting everyone in the terrorist organizations on notice that the tables are turning," Boylan said of the announcement. "There was very careful planning for this. I think they've taken everything into account and that this is the right course of action."
But as Iraqi police, many of them new recruits with minimal training, fanned out across Baghdad, car bombs and remote-controlled roadside detonations took what has become a chillingly routine daily toll.
Authorities in Sinjar said witnesses reported at least two simultaneous suicide bombings about 10:30 a.m. outside a U.S.-Iraqi military base in the town, 75 miles northwest of Mosul. The blasts, which killed six, appeared to have been set off prematurely, said Lt. Col. Karawan Fatih of the local police force.
"They were probably targeting the laborers working inside the base," he said, noting the explosives-laden cars had been unable to get to the heart of the crowd because of the concrete blast walls around the entrance.