Thousands of Troops Close In On Militants

Al Qaeda insurgents fled to Baqouba when the American troop surge arrived.

ByABC News
June 23, 2007, 3:00 PM

BAGHDAD, June 23, 2007 — -- Ten thousand American troops closed in on hundreds of suspected al Qaeda militants in western Baqouba, in Diyala province, the fiercest battleground in Operation Phantom Thunder, in a multi-pronged attack that is the largest single military campaign of the Iraq war.

"It is what you would see as your worst nightmare," Brig. Gen. Mick Bednarek, deputy commander of the Baqouba operation, told ABC News, describing one ravaged stretch of road. "It is a war-torn, devastated, block-to-block street, leveled in many areas."

Al Qaeda insurgents fled to Baqouba when the American troop surge arrived in Baghdad. This time, U.S. troops hope to capture or kill them in Baqouba so they don't have to do this again in yet another city.

U.S. forces are also engaged in pitched combat south of Baghdad -- in Anbar province and in the most dangerous neighborhoods of the capital.

All told, in the past week American troops have killed more than 159 suspected insurgents, detained more than 700 and seized 128 weapons caches.

Yet, American commanders say 80 percent of Al Qaeda's top leaders fled Diyala too, as word of the campaign spread in the days leading up to the Baqouba battle.

"I guarantee you, we're going to track down those leaders," Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the commander of ground forces in Iraq, told reporters. "We know who they are, and we're coming after them."

After all the battles are done, U.S. commanders say they will turn over the territory in Baqouba and elsewhere to Iraqi forces. The question then becomes whether the Iraqi police and Army hold their ground.

Analysts say American troops simply cannot do it all themselves.

"I would say the manpower levels of Iraq remain marginal," retired Gen. Bill Nash said in an interview. "They certainly are much better today than they were six months ago."

If the Iraqis can assume more control, Odierno said, Americans could see a reduction in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq by next spring.