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Mosque Bombing Kills Dozens; U.S. Troops Launch Offensive

June 19, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Damien Cave, welcome back. Just days ago, we were told by the United States military that the surge, the build-up of troops was complete, and yet today we see this damage, this bombing of this mosque in Baghdad. What’s going on?

DAMIEN CAVE, New York Times: Well, this appeares to be a response from what is likely to be Sunni insurgent groups who are basically attempting to mock or taunt the American effort today, say, “Well, you may be able to do all this activity in Diyala province and other areas, but we still have the capacity to exact revenge and to complete a lot of damage here in Baghdad.”

You know, this conflict has always been a back-and-forth and a tit-for-tat and an escalation that’s continued for years, yet another sign of the fact that the fight isn’t done.

Operation Arrorhead Ripper

GWEN IFILL: One of the things we've been hearing is that the security situation had sometimes improved in Baghdad, that a lot of the effort was moving towards places like Diyala province, so we had this Operation Arrowhead Ripper which is under way. Could you describe that to us?

DAMIEN CAVE: Yes, it's a major effort in Diyala province, which has supplanted Anbar as the most violent area or one of the most violent areas in the country, a stronghold for al-Qaida fighters in particular, who control entire sections of cities and small towns.

And it's an effort to surround and search and clear many of these areas, in particular Baquba, in a similar approach to what was done with Fallujah several years ago. It's a major operation, with as many 10,000 troops in Diyala province alone.

However, commanders have told us that this is only a piece of it, that there are also operations in Baghdad and in other areas surrounding Baghdad. Whether or not this will be enough to actually stem the violence permanently or even temporarily, it's still too early to tell. It's a very difficult challenge. In the past, they've done similar efforts like this, and the gains have been only temporary.

GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about Baquba in Diyala province. Just about a year ago, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed near there. At the time, we were led to believe that perhaps that meant things were calming down in that region. Is this a reversal of that?

DAMIEN CAVE: As has happened before -- and the military trainers acknowledge this -- you know, when you kill some of these leaders, it doesn't necessarily lead to peace or signify that things will get better. What appears to have happened in Diyala is that a lot of the fighters from Baghdad or from Anbar were pushed into Diyala by the American effort.

It's often been, wherever the Americans go, the insurgents will move to another place, and so Diyala became the base of operations for them. So it's not as simple as, "Well, there's been a reversal." It's also a combination of not just what was going on in Diyala before, but new activity from people coming in from other areas.

So it's a mix of different things. But what's clear is that it's become a very bad area, and the Americans are trying something to turn it around.

A multi-front push

GWEN IFILL: It also seems like a multi-front effort underway. We see what's happening near Baquba. We see what happened today in Baghdad and also some fighting against insurgents to the south. Has this now become a multi-front push?

DAMIEN CAVE: It has, indeed. And one of the things that makes this operation stand out is it's an effort to go after several areas simultaneously to prevent against what I just described, the ability for these guys to move from one place to another.

You know, again, the question is, are there enough troops to do this in enough of these areas? You know, Iraq's a big country. It's possible that even if they go into, say, a dozen places, there may be at least five or six more or more than that where they can flee to, and they know it.

So but what is interesting is it is, indeed, a multi-front effort and a multi-town, multi-city. I mean, there's really a lot going on. You know, that said, for some people, it does look very similar to what they've tried in the past, and it's not clear, you know, if this is something that is as much a show of force as it is an actual force. And that's something that will only come out in the next few months.

Iraqi troop involvement

GWEN IFILL: What extent do we think Iraqi troops are involved in this effort?

DAMIEN CAVE: Well, one of the things that's interesting about this effort that may distinguish it from some earlier ones is that there's less of an emphasis on it being Iraqi-led, which is a mantra of the American military for years now.

In this case, it appears that it's more American-dominated, and at least in Baquba and some of the other areas, and that the Iraqis are playing a role, but one that isn't necessarily as prominent. What appears to be happening is the Americans are going into places they haven't been in before and places where they expect to find a fight with entrenched insurgents.

GWEN IFILL: Damien Cave of the New York Times, thank you very much for joining us.

DAMIEN CAVE: Sure. Thank you.