BAGHDAD U.S.-backed Iraqi troops sealed off Baqouba and staged house-to-house searches Tuesday as they began a new offensive in Diyala province in the latest bid to clear al-Qaida in Iraq from its last major belt near the capital.
Iraqi security forces hope to build on recent security successes elsewhere in a new test of the country's readiness to take over its own security and enable American troops to withdraw eventually.
The U.S. military said the improved abilities of the Iraqi troops have enabled the Americans to play a less high-profile role in operations, helping to lower the number of U.S. casualties so far this year.
Only nine American troop deaths have been recorded in Iraq in July with only two days left, according to an Associated Press tally based on military figures. The July figures also include the recovery of the bodies of two U.S. soldiers, kidnapped last year, raising the official monthly toll to 11 as of Tuesday.
So far, the lowest monthly death toll for American troops in Iraq was 19 in May. From January to July 2007, there were 655 U.S. military deaths. This year, there have been 219 deaths until now.
"We're more of either enablers or overwatch and providing support as the Iraqis go out in front and conduct these operations," said U.S. military spokesman Lt. Patrick Evans. He said that has helped "reduce many of the numbers across the board."
Sunnis in Diyala and elsewhere often have complained of discrimination at the hands of the Shiite-led government, saying it was ignoring them by focusing on security in Shiite areas. A Sunni decision to join forces with the Americans against al-Qaida in Iraq has been slower to take hold in the province.
Despite numerous military operations, al-Qaida in Iraq has found sanctuary for years in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, and more remote areas of surrounding Diyala province. The terror group's notorious leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in the province in June 2006.
The religiously mixed area contains key supply routes to Baghdad and northern cities. It has been plagued not only by attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces, but also by the kidnappings and sectarian killings.
"The goal of the operation is to seek out and destroy criminal elements and terrorist threats in Diyala and eliminate smuggling corridors in the surrounding area," the U.S. military said in a statement, stressing it was an Iraqi-led operation.
Baqouba, the provincial capital, has enjoyed recent security improvements but continues to see horrific attacks, such as twin suicide bombings that killed at least 28 people on July 15 and a number of suicide attacks carried out by women.
The new Diyala operation dubbed "Omens of Prosperity" follows recent gains against Sunni insurgents in the northern city of Mosul and Shiite militiamen in Baghdad and the southern cities of Basra and Amarah.
Critics said previous operations in Diyala failed in large part because the advance publicity tipped off insurgents, who left the area only to return when the offensive was over. But this time, there is far less friendly territory to which they can flee because of the Sunni revolt against al-Qaida.
On Tuesday, U.S. soldiers took up posts at checkpoints on roads leading to Baqouba but stayed on the outskirts as Iraqi soldiers and police searched buildings inside, meeting little resistance, according to witnesses.
Streets were largely deserted as the operation got under way in the morning. Residents said they were afraid to leave their houses, though some later emerged to buy food at nearby stores.
The normally bustling central market once the site of public execution-style killings by al-Qaida but more recently touted as a military success story was closed. Troops armed with a wanted list sought al-Qaida remnants in the network's former strongholds.
Many in Baqouba welcomed the effort despite the inconvenience.
Taxi driver Sadiq Hamid, who said he was out of work for the day because of a curfew, said women and children were waving at the Iraqi troops patrolling in the streets.
"I am stuck at home and the children are playing soccer in the streets," he said, expressing hope some of his neighbors who had fled to Baghdad would return. "The residents of Diyala have been waiting this moment for a long time."
But Ahmed Kadim, a 35-year-old businessman in the city, criticized the decision to announce the operation in advance, saying it had "allowed armed groups to flee outside the province."
Associated Press writer Saad Abdul-Kadir in Baghdad, employees in Diyala, and the AP News Research Center in New York contributed to this report.