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American and Iraqi units north and south of Baghdad continued with an operation announced Tuesday targeting Sunni militants that had fled areas impacted by the “surge” earlier this year.

South of Baghdad, in the Arab Jabour area, troops of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, are “in areas that have not seen a permanent coalition presence before,” Col. Terry Ferrell, the brigade commander, said Wednesday in a phone interview.

“We are going into areas where the enemy has been able to maintain pockets … We are in relentless pursuit.”

The countrywide effort is being called Operation Phantom Phoenix; part of the operation south of Baghdad is called Marne Thunderbolt. The 2nd Brigade, 3rd ID was the last “surge” unit to arrive in Iraq, and has been conducting a series of similar operations pushing into al-Qaida in Iraq pockets south of the capital.

The idea, said Ferrell, is to “kill or capture” the insurgents, clear villages with U.S. and Iraqi troops, then allow “concerned local citizen” groups to provide security while local governance re-emerges.

Along with support from the U.S. Air Force, the units have been focusing first on ridding the target areas of improvised bombs. According to a brigade spokesman, one trend is booby-trapped houses.

Ferrell said the operation would be one in a series that seeks to continually expand the U.S. and Iraqi presence in the area.

Indeed, one of the first goals of Marne Thunderbolt is to build a new forward patrol base in his brigade’s area.

Meanwhile, a New York Times reporter embedded with units involved in Phantom Phoenix near Baqouba reported that most insurgents had already fled some of the first villages targeted there.

According to the story, published Wednesday, American planners kept most of their Iraqi counterpart units unaware of the targets before the raids, “a tactic that suggests they cannot fully trust the allies who are supposed to pick up more of the fighting as American troops scale back their presence this year.”

The troops in northern Iraq aimed to drive Sunni insurgents from an area around 60 miles northeast of Baghdad. According to the Times, seven American battalions, with Iraqi units, searched for an estimated 200 al-Qaida in Iraq insurgents.

Many of the Sunni militants are believed to have fled to northern Iraq from Baghdad and Anbar province as a result of the troop “surge” that began earlier this year.

“We have allowed the enemy to believe that Diyala has been wide open while we have been generating forces in here to nail them,” Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, was quoted as saying by the Times.

“This is a massive operation to really squeeze in the ‘Breadbasket’ what we think is a major al-Qaida logistics site, and to a lesser degree command-and-control operations.”


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