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ABU KARMAH, Iraq – A mission dubbed Operation Lightning Hammer began in the early hours of Tuesday, targeting possibly hundreds of al-Qaida in Iraq fighters throughout the Diyala River Valley.

The operation began with two U.S. Army battalions from the 1st Cavalry and 82nd Airborne divisions, along with special operational elements from the Army, Marines and Air Force, officials said.

“Right now we already have the objectives isolated,” Col. David Sutherland, U.S. commander of security forces in Diyala, told Stars and Stripes late Monday night before helicopters lifted soldiers to the cities of Abu Karmah and al-Mukhaysah.

“The goal is to expand the clearance of Baqouba to get the provincial and local-level governments up and going.”

Sutherland said efforts since Operation Arrowhead Ripper, carried out in June and July, were meant to force elements of al Qaida in Iraq who weren’t captured or killed during the mission to flee east of the city, trapping them in anticipation of Lightning Hammer.

Several objectives were being targeted throughout the Diyala River Valley, he said, but declined to be more specific.

U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Michael Badnarek, who supports Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon in overseeing operations in northern Iraq, said the goal was also to detain as many captured insurgents as possible for questioning in gathering intelligence about terrorist activity in the area.

He also said the end goal was to snuff out al-Qaida in Iraq from the area.

However, “I think it would be difficult to make the assumption that we would completely cut the head off and eradicate al-Qaida completely, but there is no question that upon completion of these missions al-Qaida will realize that they have no safe haven in this area,” he said Monday night from his offices at Forward Operating Base Warhorse, just outside of Baqouba.

Members of the 1st Cavalry’s 3rd Brigade were said to be sweeping from the Hamrin Lake area, roughly 30 miles northeast of Baqouba. Coming in from the Baqouba area, in the far west of Diyala and roughly 30 miles northeast of Baghdad, were members of the 82nd Airborne’s 5th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment via Chinook helicopter.

Artillery regiments pounded areas thought to be escape routes for insurgents, and U.S. Air Force jet-fighter aircraft supported them by dropping 500-pound bombs.

Sutherland believes that roughly 200 al-Qaida members had been driven from Baqouba following Arrowhead Ripper, but that other insurgents from multiple groups still lingered throughout the province.

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