BAQUBA, Iraq (Reuters) - U.S. and Iraqi forces say they have killed 90 al Qaeda fighters around Baghdad during one of the biggest combined offensives against the Sunni Islamist group since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Seven U.S. soldiers were killed in roadside bomb attacks in and around the capital on Saturday, underscoring a warning from military commanders that U.S. casualties are likely to mount as more troops are put in harm’s way.
U.S. air strikes on Saturday killed seven suspected al Qaeda fighters in Tikrit in Salahuddin province and near the city of Falluja, west of Baghdad, the U.S. military said in a statement.
Thousands of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers are taking part in simultaneous offensives in provinces around Baghdad to deny al Qaeda militants sanctuary in farmlands and towns from where they launch car bomb attacks and other violence.
In the capital, Iraq’s parliament voted to cut its summer vacation by a month to focus on passing laws Washington views as crucial to healing Iraq’s deep sectarian divide. Lawmakers said the current session would be extended until the end of July.
The move is likely to be welcomed by U.S. President George W. Bush, although the bills have yet to be presented to parliament for debate.
The laws include those on sharing revenues from Iraq’s huge oil reserves more equitably, holding provincial elections and allowing former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party to return to the government and military.
The U.S. military said on Saturday that 55 al Qaeda militants had been killed in Operation Arrowhead Ripper, a key plank of the combined offensives, which began in and around the city of Baquba in Diyala province on Tuesday.
Another 28 militants have been killed in separate operations in the past several days in Diyala, north of Baghdad, the U.S. military has said. U.S. officials say al Qaeda is trying to spark all-out sectarian civil war in Iraq.
In the worst attack against U.S. soldiers on Saturday, four were killed when a roadside bomb struck their vehicle northwest of Baghdad. The military did not say whether they had been taking part in the offensive. Three others were killed in roadside bomb attacks in Baghdad and Tikrit.
U.S. soldiers have been tightening their cordon around al Qaeda fighters holed up in Baquba, advancing carefully through streets lined with roadside bombs and booby-trapped houses.
Baquba is an al Qaeda stronghold that has also become a sanctuary for militants escaping a four-month-old security crackdown in Baghdad.
Colonel Steve Townsend, commander of the 3rd Stryker Brigade, told local Iraqi political and military leaders in Baquba that progress was being made.
“I believe the initial stage of the operation will be completed in another three to five days,” Townsend said at a building that serves as a joint command centre for U.S. and Iraqi forces.
The overall offensive around Baquba is expected to last many weeks. U.S. military commanders have said the combined operations were taking advantage of the completion of a build-up of U.S. forces in Iraq to 156,000 soldiers.
Bush has sent 28,000 more troops to Iraq to buy time for Shi‘ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to reach a political compromise with disaffected minority Sunni Arabs, who are locked in a cycle of violence with majority Shi‘ites.
U.S. officials had been urging parliament to either scrap its July-August summer holiday or reduce the two-month break so legislators can speed up passage of the laws.
Maliki said last week the drafts were ready and would be presented to parliament this week, but that did not happen.
Parliamentary committees dealing with the draft laws would not take any summer break, one lawmaker said. Washington believes the laws will boost Sunni Arab participation in the political process.
Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim, Paul Tait and Ross Colvin in Baghdad