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FORWARD OPERATING BASE WARHORSE, Iraq — An operation led by Iraqi forces and supported by American troops has reopened the main highway linking Baghdad and Diyala province after 16 months in insurgent hands, U.S. and Iraqi military officers said.

About 600 Iraqi soldiers and 200 U.S. troops took part in Operation Blackhawk Harvest, which reopened Route 5, the main road between Baghdad and the Diyala provincial capital of Baqouba, said Lt. Col. Marshall Dougherty, commander of 2nd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, and Gen. Rasheed Abed al Kareem, executive officer for the 5th Iraqi Army Division, in a news conference here late Tuesday.

The operation focused on a section of the highway between Baghdad and Khan Bani Saad, about halfway between the Iraqi capital and Baqouba. Insurgents had controlled this stretch of the highway for the past 16 months, according to Dougherty and Rasheed.

While relatively modest in scale, the sweep is significant. It’s the kind of operation that Iraqi forces will have to do more often if they are to take over the primary security role in areas vacated by U.S. troops as they start to withdraw in the wake of last year’s “surge.”

Rasheed said 48 insurgents were killed during the sweep, mostly by U.S. airstrikes, which began Jan. 14 and ended Monday. Eight other insurgents were arrested, according to the Iraqi general.

“They are terrorists; they belong to al-Qaida,” Rasheed said. “Security is continuing to improve daily.”

U.S. and Iraqi forces removed about 70 roadside bombs during the operation. Three Iraqi troops were killed during the removal of one bomb, the only casualties of the 14-day operation.

Rasheed and Dougherty went to great lengths to explain how the operation was planned and executed primarily by Iraqi forces, with U.S. troops playing a supporting role, mostly in the form of close-air support and bomb-clearing expertise.

“The Iraqis could have conducted and been successful in this operation without our help,” said Dougherty, adding that the U.S. contribution primarily reduced the risk to Iraqi troops.

“We largely protected their flanks,” he said.

U.S. and Iraqi engineers have since moved in and begun to repair the highway, which was heavily damaged by insurgent bomb attacks. U.S. and Iraqi troops have also constructed a number of checkpoints on the route, which will be occupied by Iraqi security forces and tribal militia, working under U.S. security contracts, Dougherty said.

Several families displaced by insurgents have returned home and others are expected to do so. Iraqi army forces have also delivered 200 tons of rice, flour and cooking oil to the areas recently cleared of insurgents.

At one point during the news conference, Rasheed announced that “al-Qaida is defeated in Diyala province,” although recent events would suggest otherwise. Insurgent attacks still occur almost daily in Diyala, and there has been a spate of suicide bombings in recent months, including four carried out by women since November.

A U.S. soldier suggested later that Rasheed’s comments may have been mangled in translation.

Asked when Iraqi forces would be able to assume security for Diyala on their own, Rasheed cautioned that it would be at least the end of 2008 before they were ready for the responsibility and then only if they have enough heavy weapons, including artillery.


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