BAGHDAD -- With the influx of tens of thousands of additional combat troops into Iraq now complete, U.S. forces have begun a major offensive against al-Qaida in Iraq on the outskirts of Baghdad, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said yesterday.
The commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, in a news conference in Baghdad along with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, said the operation was designed to take the fight to al-Qaida's hide-outs to cut down the group's devastating campaign of car bombings.
The offensive comes at a critical time in the war, with increasing U.S. casualties and rising domestic pressure to show results or begin troop withdrawals, and just three months before a formal assessment of the military buildup President Bush ordered.
It also suggests that the military is re-evaluating its strategy of focusing on stemming sectarian violence in Baghdad and is acknowledging that the so-called troop surge has been unable to dampen a wave of insurgent attacks that have all but stalled attempts at political reconciliation.
The new emphasis on attacking the insurgent cells and bomb-making factories outside the capital is expected to be a sustained one, involving tough fighting. But creating lasting effects from such pushes has been challenging; in the past, insurgents have repeatedly been driven from one location only to resurface in another.
The heart of the U.S. buildup of 30,000 extra troops is the deployment of five U.S. brigade combat teams, a fighting core of more than 20,000 soldiers. Along with an additional Marine expeditionary unit, the last of those troops arrived in the past few days, bringing the total number of U.S. troops in Iraq to about 155,000.
The additional U.S. forces, Petraeus said, would enable the United States to conduct operations in "a number of areas around Baghdad, in particular to go into areas that were sanctuaries in the past of al-Qaida."
Recently, the insurgent group has blown up bridges and is believed to be behind the recent bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra, which was heavily damaged in a previous bombing last year. Shiites have been the most heavily hit by the insurgent attacks, and officials in the Shiite-led government have bluntly said that no political deal with Sunni Arabs would be possible until the violence eases.
The scope, timing and details of the new U.S. operations are classified. But one sign of the stepped-up activity was apparent in a recent operation reported by the 3rd Infantry Division, which is operating in the Sunni Arab belts south of the capital. In that case, U.S. helicopters and Iraqi forces attacked an insurgent cell, killing several and capturing others.
The decision to mount more attacks in the Sunni Arab belts is a trade-off, as it will limit the number of U.S. forces that are available to secure neighborhoods inside the capital. Petraeus appeared to allude to that.
"The fact is, frankly, that we have all that our country is going to provide us in terms of combat forces - that is really it, right now," he said.
As part of the effort to weaken al-Qaida's forces outside Baghdad, the U.S. military has also begun working with Sunni Arab tribes in Anbar province, west of Baghdad, and is hoping to expand this approach to other areas of Iraq.
This is not the first time that U.S. forces have taken on al-Qaida strongholds. The military's assault in 2004 of Fallujah, which was the center of insurgent strength then, was the biggest ground operation since the invasion.
But while that effort seemed to drive insurgents away from the city, the military was unable to completely loosen al-Qaida's hold on other parts of the province. As gains have been made in Anbar, commanders say, the group has shifted its main body into Diyala province, just northeast of the capital, flowing away and creating new violence.
In the Baghdad news conference, Gates insisted that the military buildup was beginning to show dividends. "The full impact of the surge is just beginning to be felt," he said.
Gates arrived in Iraq to express Washington's disappointment with the pace of political reconciliation under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and to urge a series of political benchmarks to lower tensions among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.