BAQOUBA, Iraq -- Troops in armored vehicles swept through this city north of Baghdad yesterday as the U.S. military launched a major offensive that is a significant shift of focus from inside the capital to surrounding areas.
American commanders say the offensive, which involves about 10,000 U.S. troops in Baqouba and portions of Diyala province around it, is designed to stop the flow of bombs into Baghdad.
The need to do so was illustrated again yesterday when a huge truck bomb struck one of the capital's most revered Shiite mosques. The explosion killed at least 60 people and wounded scores more, according to the Interior Ministry.
It was a deadly day in which 21 other bodies were found around the capital. Nine of those were found in neighborhoods near where the mosque was hit, an indication they might have been Sunni men killed in retaliatory violence.
The military announced the deaths of three U.S. soldiers, two in the Baghdad area and one in Diyala, bringing the total of U.S. military deaths in the war so far to 3,528, according to an Associated Press count.
American military officials say their goal is to break the cycle of bombings by Sunni insurgents and revenge killings by Shiite militias that fuel Iraq's civil war. The U.S. strategy was designed to accomplish that goal by concentrating troops in Baghdad's toughest neighborhoods - even at the risk of neglecting outlying provinces. Now, however, U.S. commanders believe the only way to stop the flow of bombs is to improve security to the northeast, south and west of Baghdad.
"You have to control the approaches to prevent these bombs from getting inside the city," said Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a military spokesman.
U.S. military officers reject the notion that the focus beyond Baghdad represents mission creep. Top generals have been talking about the importance of securing the "Baghdad Belts" for months, they note. With the current buildup having reached its full complement of 28,500 additional troops, U.S. commanders say they have a large enough force to mount more ambitious offensives.
"From the beginning we have talked about the fact that not only do you have to have troops in Baghdad, but you have to control the belts," said Garver.
But there is no disputing that the current offensive will siphon off troops who might otherwise be patrolling Baghdad. The change illustrates a persistent theme of the war: When the military has pulled troops out of an area, it has almost always needed to return forces to them.
Last month, the top American commander in northern Iraq, Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. "Randy" Mixon, said he needed more troops to deal with escalating violence in Diyala. That unusually frank assessment - along with a realization that Sunni insurgents controlled parts of Baqouba, the provincial capital - helped set the stage for the new offensive.
Diyala, an area of rivers and rich farmland between Baghdad and the Iranian border, has recently overtaken Anbar province as the deadliest place outside Baghdad for U.S. forces in Iraq. Eighty-six American troops have died in Diyala so far this year.
Baqouba has been at the center of much of the violence. Earlier this year, Iraqi and American soldiers established themselves in the eastern parts of the city, which has roughly 300,000 residents, but its western neighborhoods have been largely under the control of al-Qaida in Iraq and other insurgent groups.
The U.S. attack on those neighborhoods began Monday night and continued yesterday. Attack helicopters and warplanes pounded three neighborhoods in west Baqouba with rockets, missiles and 500-pound bombs, targeting car bombs, weapons caches and suspected hide-outs. Gunmen popped up on the rooftops and in alleys, engaging the soldiers in crackling gunfights.
Through loudspeakers, Iraqi troops told residents they and the Americans were "cleansing the neighborhoods of terrorists." Iraqis were told to open the doors of their homes but to stay inside as the Americans swept through.
At least four Iraqis seen moving equipment across a road after curfew were killed in the first hours of the offensive, the U.S. military announced. In a separate engagement, American attack helicopters killed four other militants, the U.S. command said. Some Baqouba residents said aerial attacks that began in advance of the infantry's movement into the city had killed civilians.
Six U.S. soldiers were injured when their Bradley fighting vehicle hit a roadside bomb, the military said. There was no immediate word on other U.S. casualties.
The 3rd Stryker Brigade of the U.S. Army's 2nd Infantry Division led the attack, although the unit was supplemented by forces from two other infantry brigades.
Residents said insurgents planted hundreds of roadside bombs in the city in advance of the American offensive, but U.S. forces began detonating the improvised explosives before the attack began.
U.S. commanders say they will not know for weeks whether the offensives in Baqouba and other areas around Baghdad succeed in reducing the number of bombings in the capital.
Yesterday's huge bomb went off near a crowded square in the parking lot of the Khullani mosque. Although the mosque's turquoise dome still stood, one side of the building was badly damaged by the bomb, which also destroyed a nearby home and set several shops and about 20 cars ablaze, according to witnesses. U.S. military officials said the truck was laden with propane tanks.
Ghaith Abdullah, 37, the owner of a nearby paint shop, described the scene in a telephone interview: "It is a horrible sight in front of me, a pillar of smoke, corpses, injured people and panic."
Alexandra Zavis and Julian E. Barnes write for the Los Angeles Times.