BAQOUBA, Iraq – About 700 American soldiers rolled into Baqouba on Tuesday, shifted out of Baghdad to help carry the security campaign against sectarian violence to a nearby volatile province.
The fresh troops from the Army’s 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment – equipped with Stryker armored vehicles – joined 3,500 U.S. and 20,000 Iraqi soldiers already in Diyala, where insurgents have stepped up attacks as violence appears to be ebbing in Baghdad.
U.S. officials attribute the rise to Sunni insurgents who fled the capital to areas where they have support from al-Qaida in Iraq and loyalists of Saddam Hussein’s ousted regime.
U.S. commanders said they had been planning to fan out from Baghdad into communities around the capital, such as Baqouba 35 miles to the northeast, to go after insurgents and clandestine workshops that rig car bombs used in attacks in the capital.
“This is not a haphazard fire drill to save the house from burning,” said Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq. “We began looking at this several months ago in support of the Baghdad plan. We knew the surrounding provinces would be in play.”
The 5th Battalion’s move occurred as more than 20,000 U.S. troops are pouring into Baghdad seeking to end the bombings, kidnappings and slayings that paralyzed the Iraqi government and threatened the nation with all-out sectarian war.
As U.S. troops pressed the crackdown, two roadside bombs killed two American soldiers and wounded four Tuesday, the military reported.
As sectarian bloodshed ebbs in Baghdad, attacks on U.S. troops in Diyala have risen 70 percent since summer, according to U.S. figures.
Over the weekend, gunmen believed to be Sunni extremists raided a farming community outside the Diyala city of Muqdadiyah, setting fire to at least 15 houses, slaughtering livestock and driving off the residents, the U.S. military said Tuesday. It quoted residents as saying they tried to defend their homes but fled after they ran out of ammunition.
Also Tuesday, Iraq’s Shiite prime minister traveled to the militant stronghold of Ramadi to reach out to Sunni leaders.
Nouri al-Maliki, making his first trip to Anbar province as Iraq’s leader, met with influential clan chiefs who have found themselves caught between militant groups and the U.S.-backed government – and sometimes doing business with both.
“I am not saying that the challenges are over or will soon be over,” al-Maliki told the meeting in remarks broadcast by government television. He applauded Sunni tribes and clans that had “risen up and countered terrorism.”
The discussion with local Sunni leaders was heated at times, as they demanded more from the Iraqi government, but it ended “on an extremely positive note” with promises of renewed cooperation, said Maj. Jeff Pool, a U.S. military spokesman.
The latest identifications reported by the U.S. military of personnel killed in Iraq or as result of combat operations there:
Army Pvt. Mark Graham, 22, Lafayette, La., died Wednesday at Brooke Army Medical Center, San Antonio, Texas, of wounds suffered from an explosive March 2 in Baghdad; assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas.
Army Spc. Jonathan K. Smith, 19, Atlanta, died Sunday in Baghdad in a noncombat related incident; assigned to the 115th Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas.
Army Sgt. Daniel E. Woodcock, 25, Glennallen, Alaska, died Sunday in Ad Dawr in a building explosion while he was on patrol; assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C.