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Joint assault amid canals resumes

U.S. and Iraqi troops mounting an offensive in Diyala province find arms caches and tunnels but few insurgents.

January 12, 2007|Alexandra Zavis | Times Staff Writer

TURKI, IRAQ — As a heavy fog lifted Thursday in Diyala province, U.S. and Iraqi soldiers pressed into a warren of reed-choked canals and found secret tunnels, weapons caches and a roadside bomb.

But there was little evidence of the fighters they believed might be massing for a final stand as the joint offensive against a reputed haven and training ground for Sunni Arab insurgents entered its eighth day.

U.S. forces said that in the last week they had already killed at least 90 gunmen spotted maneuvering in the area or planting explosives in the road as nearly 1,000 U.S. and Iraqi government troops closed in and blocked escape routes.

Seven more insurgents were reported killed Thursday as they advanced against U.S. and Iraqi forces on the outskirts of Turki, the main village in the area.

"I think we killed the people that were going to fight," said Capt. Stephen Dobbins, a troop commander in the U.S. Army's 5th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry. "Anybody else potentially thought that was a bad idea and melted back into the civilian population."

But he said U.S. and Iraqi forces could still meet resistance as they press forward.

Commanders have said success will ultimately depend on building a patrol station and establishing a permanent presence in the isolated region east of Baghdad. Until recently, Iraqi security forces had refused to venture there without U.S. backup.

The crackle of heavy guns punctuated by grenade blasts echoed through desolate farmland as soldiers in armored trucks fired into the canals before climbing down to search them on foot. Attack helicopters circled overhead.

When U.S. forces last swept through the area in November, they encountered fierce resistance from well-trained bands of insurgents, who used the canal network in a battle of the trenches that left two American soldiers and many more guerrillas dead.

The region is a stronghold of the powerful Daini tribe, which includes many disaffected former officers in the late Saddam Hussein's army.

U.S. officers believe that tribe members have established links with Al Qaeda in Iraq and other militant groups, offering important logistical and training support from this rural region. They are also accused of kidnappings and killings aimed at purging area villages of Shiite Muslims and other rival tribesmen.

Bad weather forced a two-day pause in the offensive, during which U.S. and Iraqi forces kept the area surrounded. Small groups of men armed with Kalashnikovs, some of them with their faces covered in black scarves, were repeatedly spotted moving through the canals. But in most cases U.S. solders called in air or artillery strikes against them before any shots were fired.

As the weather cleared Thursday, Lt. Col. Andrew Poppas, who commands the 5th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry, addressed his troops over a crackling radio.

"The juggernaut is moving," he said.

"Go ahead and execute."

The offensive, which has involved tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, Humvees and attack helicopters, has uncovered numerous weapons caches, including one that yielded 1,172 Katyusha rockets, 1,039 rocket- propelled grenades and 171 TOW antitank missiles.

Minutes after plunging in among the reeds along one stretch of canal, an Iraqi soldier identified a disk protruding from the mud that appeared to be an antitank mine. When an ordnance disposal team blew it away, a plastic container was revealed below holding machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and an antitank mine.

Numerous spider holes, some containing food and water, were found linked to the canals. U.S. soldiers said they were probably used as hide-outs and fighting positions. Motorcycles were also found buried in straw.

Shrapnel from one controlled detonation injured four American soldiers, one Iraqi and an interpreter. Most of the injuries were minor.

Groups of seven and nine men of military age were found at two farm compounds searched Friday, in contrast to previous days when only women and children were left at most homes. But U.S. forces found no evidence against them.

In Turki village, 15 men were detained Thursday for illegal weapons possession, including Kalashnikovs and an Iranian machine gun. Fake identification cards and cash were also found.

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