WASHINGTON (AFPS Jan. 9, 2008) - American military forces in northern Iraq launched an offensive this week targeting al Qaeda elements operating in the region.

Code-named "Iron Harvest," the operation dovetails with Operation Phantom Phoenix, a countrywide anti-insurgent offensive announced Tuesday by Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of Multinational Corps Iraq, senior officers told reporters during a Baghdad news conference.

Six Soldiers were killed Wednesday in a Diyala explosion as they approached a house that had reportedly been used by al Qaeda in Iraq.

"Right now, the focus of all our enablers is on Diyala (province)," Army Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, commander of Multinational Division North, told reporters. Recently gathered intelligence is being used to identify and root out enemy networks in his area of operations, he said.

Al Qaeda leaders operating in and around the northern city of Mosul are reported to be discouraged and desperate for money, Hertling said. This, he said, explains a recent spate of regional kidnappings for ransom and other criminal acts to obtain quick cash.

"We've also seen some reflections that the lower-level (al Qaeda) fighters are very upset at their leaders," Hertling said, noting some al Qaeda chiefs reportedly are leaving Iraq with their underlings' pay.

Al Qaeda operatives captured in recent coalition operations in and around Mosul have provided interrogators with the names of other al Qaeda members and have told stories about increasing disorganization within the terrorist group, Hertling said.

Diyala province is important to al Qaeda, the general explained, because the terrorist group considers it to be the center of their Islamic caliphate. Mosul is an important city, he added, because it is a hub to spokes of several vital roads that traverse northern Iraq.

"It is a very cosmopolitan city," Hertling said of Mosul, noting the city's multi-ethnic composition makes it an ideal hiding place for al Qaeda operatives.

Coalition forces "are continuing to pursue al Qaeda throughout the width and depth of the battle space," Hertling said. The increasing numbers and capabilities of Iraqi soldiers and police, as well as contributions made by concerned citizens groups, are putting the squeeze on al Qaeda in Iraq, he pointed out.

"The places we can't be, they are," Hertling said of anti-terrorist efforts of Iraqi security forces and anti-al Qaeda volunteer citizens' groups. "And, as the Iraqi army gets stronger and the Iraqi police stand up and as they're being helped, at least in the interim, by these concerned local citizens who are tired of the violence, there's no place left for these folks to go."

Terrorist attacks are down overall across Iraq, Hertling said, but he acknowledged that "spectacular" events committed in the northern provinces, such as suicide attacks and beheadings, appear to be increasing. Such acts, he said, demonstrate al Qaeda in Iraq's increasing desperation.

Meanwhile, U.S. and Iraqi security forces participating in Operation Iron Harvest are pursuing al Qaeda in Iraq operatives in "simultaneous operations" across northern Iraq, Hertling said.

Army Maj. Gen. Kevin J. Bergner, a spokesman for Multinational Force Iraq, who accompanied Hertling at the news conference, saluted the three heroic Iraqi soldiers who sacrificed their lives Jan. 6, while trying to stop a suicide bomber in Baghdad.

"The selfless sacrifices of these three martyrs saved the lives of many others that day and embodies the courage of the Iraqi army," Bergner said.

Recent terrorist attacks on Iraqi concerned citizens groups indicate al Qaeda in Iraq's increasing desperation.

"These attacks and the heartless attack on a funeral last week are disturbing evidence that al Qaeda is willing to kill even those it needs for its support," Bergner said. "These attacks will only strengthen our resolve to further support the courage and strength of the Iraqi people, close ranks against the terrorists, and pursue those who wreak the senseless violence."

Yesterday, Hertling saluted the Iraqi security forces during an interview with a Pentagon Channel reporter in Iraq.

The Iraqi army is in "great shape and they are getting better every day," Hertling told the Pentagon Channel. "The four (Iraqi army) divisions we work with are really capable." The capabilities of local Iraqi police are increasing as well, he noted.

"The last time we were here, you had to cover the area yourself, by hook or crook," Hertling recalled.

The difference today, he pointed out, is that Iraqi soldiers and police are assisting coalition forces in chasing down insurgents and in other missions conducted to provide stability for the Iraqi people.

(Former ARNEWS reporter Gerry Gilmore writes for the American Forces Press Service)