BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. soldiers backed by attack aircraft killed 20 suspected al Qaeda fighters in raids against the Sunni Islamist group in northern and central Iraq over the past two days, the U.S. military said on Wednesday.
In the biggest operation on Wednesday, U.S. ground troops seeking an al Qaeda network leader near the Diyala provincial capital Baquba, 65 km (40 miles) north of Baghdad, encountered a number of militants who took up “fighting positions”.
“Responding in self-defense, the ground force called supporting aircraft to engage the hostile force, killing 10 terrorists,” the military said in a statement.
Another three were killed by soldiers in a nearby building. Weapons caches including machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, roadside bombs, artillery and mortar rounds and other ammunition were also found nearby, the military said.
Those raids took place near where U.S. soldiers had killed two suspected militants on Tuesday.
Diyala has replaced western Anbar as one of the main al Qaeda troublespots for U.S. and Iraqi forces after the group was driven out of Anbar and the Baghdad area during security crackdowns last year.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have launched a series of offensives against al Qaeda in Iraq’s northern provinces, including Diyala.
U.S. soldiers in the Hamrin mountains near Samarra, 100 km (60 miles) north of Baghdad, killed another five suspected al Qaeda fighters on Tuesday, the military said.
In other violence, gunmen killed the dean of Baghdad University’s dental school while he was driving home from work on Wednesday, Iraqi police said.
They said they found the body of Munthar Muhrej Radhi, who headed the country’s premier dental school, in the front of his car in western Baghdad. He had been shot multiple times.
Gunmen have regularly targeted Iraq’s academic community, killing scores of professors in recent years and prompting many more to flee the country.
Three Iraqi soldiers were also killed and two wounded when gunmen opened fire on them in Baghdad’s central Bab al-Muadham area on Wednesday, three police officials said.
One official said they were shot while on foot patrol, while a second said they were shot in their vehicles.
Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Matthew Tostevin