BAGHDAD The U.S. military said on Monday it had killed 60 militants during a week-long offensive in northern Iraq against al Qaeda which has proved a resilient foe and has resisted previous attempts to drive it from the region.
The offensive in four northern provinces and Baghdad's southern suburbs was launched on January 8 by the U.S. military, which regards al Qaeda as the single greatest threat to Iraq's security and has blamed it for an upsurge in suicide bombings.
In Baghdad, gunmen killed appeals court judge Amir Jawdat al-Naeib as he drove to work on Monday. Naeib's driver was also killed. Militants have frequently targeted judges, academics, other professionals and their families.
The new offensive is seen as part of the U.S. strategy of reducing violence to give Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government time to cement the security gains with political progress towards national reconciliation.
The military said in a statement that U.S. and Iraqi forces had killed 60 militants, detained 193 and found 79 weapons caches containing thousands of rounds of ammunition, explosives and home-made bombs during the offensive in northern Iraq.
Troops had found one cache in an underground bunker complex with several rooms during operations in Diyala, a volatile, religiously mixed province north of Baghdad.
But the fighting has not been one-sided. Police said seven policemen were killed when the house they were searching blew up in the town of Buhriz just south of Baquba, Diyala's capital.
Six U.S. soldiers were killed in Diyala last week when a house booby-trapped with explosives collapsed on top of them. It was the single greatest loss of life by U.S. troops so far during the operation.
A similar offensive targeting al Qaeda in Diyala last summer failed to drive out the Sunni Islamist group because many militants escaped before the well-flagged operation.
A series of U.S. and Iraqi operations against al Qaeda in the second half of 2007 largely drove the group from the capital and western Anbar province, and they are now regrouping in the north, U.S. officials say.
While overall levels of violence in Iraq have dropped by about 60 percent since last June, suicide bombings have surged in Iraq's northern provinces since December, killing dozens.
Progress towards reconciliation has been slow and many Iraqis complain that while security has improved, the government is still failing to provide water and electricity.
Faced with a particularly cold winter, Iraqis are struggling with the absence of such basic services in some areas.
Parts of Iraq have been hit by power cuts. In the capital and in the northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, residents say they only have one or two hours of electricity a day.
The Electricity Ministry on Monday blamed Turkey for cutting power to the northern Kurdish provinces of Dahuk and Arbil and Kuwait for halting supplies of fuel to electricity stations in the south. It also said some power lines had been sabotaged.
Washington is anxious that Maliki's government begins to show it serves all Iraqis, not just the Shi'ite and Kurdish communities whose political blocs dominate his administration.
Iraq's main Sunni Arab bloc said on Monday it was ready to return to Maliki's cabinet in an effort to revive the national unity government that collapsed last year.
Sunni Arab Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, leader of the largest political party in the Accordance Front, appeared to signal a new readiness to strike a deal after parliament on Saturday voted to allow members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party to return to government jobs, a long-time Sunni Arab demand.
"We believe that the interests of Iraq needs us to return, not only the Accordance Front, but the other blocs and parties that withdrew from government," said Hashemi.
Hashemi said there was an urgent need to end what he called the "unprecedented stagnation" of the political process.
(Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim and Wisam Mohammed in
Baghdad; Editing by Caroline Drees)