Almost 80 people died in a reported truck bomb attack on a Shia mosque in Baghdad on Tuesday, hours after 10,000 US troops launched a hunt for al-Qaeda militants in the province of Diyala – one of the largest offensives since the US-led invasion in 2003.
The US offensive around the city of Baquba is aimed at breaking the insurgents’ recently established base in the province. Among the principal aims is the disruption of al-Qaeda car bomb networks that cause carnage in Baghdad and which the US has warned could restart the cycle of sectarian violence that has been dulled in recent weeks by the additional deployment of US troops in the capital.
The blast outside the Khilani mosque in central Baghdad, attributed by wire reports to a truck bomb, is the second deadliest attack since the start of the troop surge in February. It left more than 200 people injured.
It may be particularly damaging to attempts to end Iraq’s civil conflict because it comes less than a week after the destruction of the minarets of the Shia shrine in Samarra – one of Shia Islam’s holiest sites in Iraq – which had the potential to increase sectarian bloodshed.
Calls for restraint from Shia clerics, together with strict curfew measures ordered by the government of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, appear to have prevented a surge in Shia militia reprisals such as those that came after a 2006 attack on the same shrine.
However, both clerical and government authority appears to be eroded by each new attack on a Shia civilian or religious target.
The attack came as US troops launched Operation Arrowhead Ripper in the province of Diyala north east of Baghdad, claiming to have killed 22 insurgents in the first day of the sweep.
The operation is aimed at the al-Qaeda network, who took advantage of sectarian polarisation in the mixed Sunni-Shia-Kurdish province over the past year to turn Diyala into one of the major centres of the insurgency outside of Baghdad.
Attack helicopters, close air support, and Stryker and Bradley armoured vehicles were used by the military in an attempt to “destroy al-Qaeda influences” in Diyala, a statement by the US military said. Such large-scale operations usually involve a series of raids based on intelligence against specific targets, as well as broader operations in which districts are cordoned off and searched for weapons or militants.
Diyala and other agricultural areas close to Baghdad are thought to be one of the main centres where car bombs are prepared for detonation inside the capital.
US military operations have in the past often resulted in a local drop in insurgent activities, followed by upswings elsewhere as guerrillas relocate.