BAQUBAH, IRAQ — Islamic militants hid their guns and blended with locals here Wednesday, many evading capture on the second day of a major U.S. offensive, residents said. Some forced truckers to cart their weapons and ammunition out of the area ahead of the dragnet.
The accounts, given as U.S. soldiers on foot and in armored vehicles pushed down the eerily empty streets of this provincial capital, seemed to confirm a pattern that has bedeviled anti-insurgent efforts across Iraq. Confronted with an assault, many drop their weapons and melt away, only to return when U.S. forces turn their attention elsewhere.
"It is frustrating," said Army Lt. Col. Bruce Antonia, speaking about past operations. Antonia is commander of the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, one of three battalions participating in the effort in west Baqubah and other parts of Diyala province, north of Baghdad.
The operation, involving about 10,000 U.S. troops, was launched early Tuesday. It is aimed at driving pro-Al Qaeda Sunni Arab militants from Baqubah, which they have declared the capital of a self-styled Islamic state, and to halt the flow of bombs into Baghdad.
The United States has said that unlike previous raids, this and other offensives in various parts of the country will succeed because troops will stay in the area for months if necessary. But four months after the launch of President Bush's troop buildup, with an influx of an additional 28,500 soldiers, they appear to have made little headway in stabilizing Iraq.
By Wednesday afternoon, military officials said, 41 suspected insurgents had been killed and five homes rigged with explosives had been destroyed.
Samah Ibrahim, who lives in central Baqubah, said Iraqi police had been confiscating private cars and giving them to masked men waving Iraqi flags, who were driving around in police-escorted convoys. He speculated that the men were members of the 1920 Revolution Brigade, a Sunni resistance group that until recently was allied with the group Al Qaeda in Iraq. In a tactic being tried in other parts of the country, the brigade's members were recruited to work with U.S. and Iraqi forces against Al Qaeda in Iraq.
The situation in Diyala has become so dire that American forces have resorted to risky alliances with groups that once sought to kill the troops. On a per-capita basis, Diyala has become the deadliest province for the U.S. in Iraq. At least 84 U.S. troops have died in Diyala this year, including one killed Tuesday when a bomb went off near his vehicle. Last year, a total of 20 U.S. troops died in the province.
The U.S. military also announced the deaths of two service members Wednesday in a simultaneous offensive southwest of Baghdad. Their deaths brought to at least 3,533 the number of American troops killed since the war began, according to icasualties.org, a website that tracks military casualties.
In Diyala, there were reports of the 1920 Revolution Brigade using its newfound status to chilling effect.
Rami Abdullah, a Baqubah schoolteacher, said masked men raided a house near his home and arrested two alleged Al Qaeda loyalists. "They whisked them away to unknown destinations," he said.
Masked men also took over several homes near a dam and were using them as interrogation centers for people suspected of supporting Al Qaeda. "They are executing anyone who is proved affiliated with these groups," he said.
The advancing U.S. troops found bomb-making factories and weapons caches, but most of the insurgents appeared to have disappeared. Residents told them the masked gunmen who had haunted their streets had stashed their arms and hidden among the locals fleeing ahead of the U.S. operation.
Mohammed Abdul-Jabbar, a trader, said he had seen insurgents in recent days stopping trucks and forcing the drivers to carry the fighters' weapons and ammunition out of town.
Bruce Hoffman, a professor at Georgetown University and an expert on terrorism, said the problem of insurgents slipping away before major operations was not new. "Regrettably, it is a practice that has existed throughout our involvement in Iraq," he said. "It was a problem in Vietnam as well. Their strength is their mobility.... They don't stand and fight. Their survival is predicated on elusiveness."
But James Phillips, a Middle East and terrorism expert at the Heritage Foundation, said even if large operations such as this one did not capture many insurgents, they could disrupt their activities.
"I think probably the more fruitful raids are the small, pinpoint attacks," he said. "But one possible benefit of the big operations is it reassures the population, and maybe they will provide you the intelligence that you can use to hit insurgent leaders."
U.S. and Iraqi forces say that as in Baghdad, they will seek to establish joint patrol stations, provide medical help and improve services.