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Iraq offensive: Clear out militants – and stay.

US, Iraqi operation in Diyala Province draws on a new counterinsurgency model.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 14, 2008

Rooftop View: US Army soldiers from Ghostrider Company, 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment keep an eye out in Abu Musa in Diyala Province. Operation Phantom Phoenix began Jan. 8.

Marko Drobnjakovic/AP

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BAQUBAH, Iraq

US forces are solidifying control over some of the most persistent militant strongholds of Al Qaeda in Iraq northeast of Baghdad, drawing on a new counterinsurgency model that has already seen some success in troubled Diyala Province.

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The newly established US military control over what officers call the "breadbasket" – the lush Diyala River Valley 70 miles northeast of the capital – is only the first part of a multiprong strategy to boost numbers of Iraqi Army and police in the area and re-connect beleaguered local authorities to the provincial government and Baghdad.

"We [and] the Iraqi forces and government are committing ourselves to staying in this area, which has previously not happened," says Lt. Col. James Brown, executive officer of the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. "It's been go in, find Al Qaeda in Iraq, kill them, and then leave. Big surprise, they come right back."

This push across the fields and palm groves of Diyala is part of a four-province offensive called "Operation Phantom Phoenix," which involves thousands of US and Iraqi troops going after Sunni militants that have been pushed out of Baghdad by the surge in US troops. The fall in violent attacks has been marred by a spate of car bombs and suicide attacks over the past two weeks in Baghdad; the US effort Thursday included the heaviest airstrikes since 2006 against some 40 targets south of the capital.

In Kuwait Saturday, President Bush conceded that until last year, "our strategy simply wasn't working," with Iraq riven by sectarian violence and Sunni and Shiite militants strengthening their grip in many areas. He said US forces were now on track to see a 20,000-troop drawdown by mid-2008, to the presurge level of 130,000. He warned it "would be premature" to suggest that the current offensive is a final push.

"Al Qaeda ... will continue to target the innocent with violence," Mr. Bush said. "But we've dealt Al Qaeda in Iraq heavy blows, and it now faces a growing uprising of ordinary Iraqis who want to live peaceful lives."

The surge was meant to lower violence to enable national reconciliation. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki claimed in recent days that "sectarian violence has ended" in Iraq, and that there was now political room for the "whole spectrum of the Iraqi people." But deep divisions remain. Still, parliament passed a law Saturday reversing key elements of the de-Baathification order, which should bring former bureaucrats, many of them Sunnis, back into the fold.

The increasing willingness of Sunni tribes, alienated by Al Qaeda tactics, to form US-backed paramilitary groups called Sahwa, or "Awakening," has been crucial. A six-month cease-fire by anti-US Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has also let the US concentrate on Sunni militants.

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