BAGHDAD — More than 700 U.S. troops rolled into Diyala on Tuesday in armored vehicles to help quell escalating violence in the Iraqi province that has become a haven for insurgents targeted by the Baghdad security crackdown.
The Army battalion was transferred from Taji to Baqubah, capital of the religiously mixed province that extends from Baghdad to the Iranian border, the military said. It joined about 3,500 U.S. troops already stationed there.
Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, the U.S. commander for northern Iraq, had requested the reinforcements to confront a rise in sectarian and insurgent attacks in outlying regions since U.S. and Iraqi troops began a crackdown in Baghdad last month.
U.S. commanders believe insurgent fighters have moved into the province from Baghdad and Al Anbar, the western Iraqi province that is the center of the Sunni Arab insurgency.
"We see the Sunni insurgency trying to desperately gain control of Diyala, because it helps in their effort to control Baghdad and to prevent the government of Iraq from succeeding," Mixon told Pentagon reporters via video link from Iraq last week.
U.S. officials did not specify how long the new battalion would be based in Diyala. But Mixon said he was "cautiously optimistic that in the next 30 to 60 days that we're going to see some significant differences in the security situation in Diyala."
Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said Monday that U.S. commanders had anticipated that the Baghdad crackdown could drive some insurgent and militia leaders into areas such as Diyala. He said troops would spread out into communities on Baghdad's fringes, where insurgents are believed to be operating car-bomb factories.
The United States plans to deploy about 21,500 troops in what has been described as a last-ditch effort to stem insurgent and sectarian fighting in Baghdad and Al Anbar province.
Two U.S. soldiers participating in the Baghdad crackdown were killed in roadside bombings Tuesday, the military said. One of the blasts targeted a combat patrol in the south of the city, killing one soldier. The other blast occurred during joint security operations in northeast Baghdad, the military said. The fatalities bring the death toll in Iraq to 3,197, according to icasualties.org, a website that tracks military fatalities.
The crackdown has been accompanied by a modest decline in execution-style killings in Baghdad, where Shiite Muslim militiamen have pulled back under pressure from the Shiite-led government to avoid clashes with U.S. forces.
But bombings and other attacks blamed largely on Sunni Arab insurgents have persisted, causing mounting frustration among the Shiite majority. And the number of bullet-riddled bodies recovered each day has started to inch back up.
Police said they found 17 bodies Tuesday, all of them in Sunni-dominated west Baghdad, which has seen frequent clashes with Shiite militiamen.
At least 15 other people were killed in attacks across the country. They included five Sunni worshipers gunned down as they left a mosque in southwest Baghdad, police said.
Earlier, a shell slammed into an upscale part of Shiite-dominated east Baghdad, killing four people and injuring another four, police said.
Amid the unrelenting violence, parliament passed a one-month extension of a state of emergency.
In other developments, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani was expected to return to Iraq today after spending more than two weeks in a hospital in Jordan, the president's office said.
Talabani sought treatment in the Jordanian capital, Amman, after collapsing from exhaustion and dehydration brought on by lung and sinus infections.
Special correspondents in Baghdad, Hillah and Kirkuk contributed to this report.