BAGHDAD - The US military launched a countrywide offensive yesterday against Al Qaeda in Iraq's efforts to regroup and intensify suicide strikes on civilians who have sided with the Americans against the terrorist group.
But the latest US blitz brings more than just firepower to the field - a determination to speed up work on basic services and other civic projects that commanders believe will win more converts to the American effort.
The number two US commander, Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, announced the new operation and took pains to say it would focus on bettering Iraqi lives as well as on attacks against Al Qaeda.
"The nonlethal aspects of this operation are designed to improve delivery of essential services, economic development, and local governance capacity," the military statement said.
By emphasizing that the offensive was twofold, the Pentagon appeared to acknowledge that it will be difficult to maintain lower levels of violence without swaying more support from the streets - particularly as Al Qaeda is waging a renewed campaign of suicide attacks in recent weeks against America's new Sunni allies.
The Pentagon's emphasis on the "nonlethal" aspects of the operation indicates Washington feared the window could slam shut on ongoing successes in recruiting former enemies, many of whom are being paid $300 a month by the US military.
There has been increasing frustration among American military and political leaders that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite Muslim, has been hesitant to embrace the so-called Awakening Council movement - mainly among Sunnis - that has seen about 70,000 men switch sides and join the Americans against Al Qaeda.
Sunni tribal leaders have said that Maliki was foot-dragging on getting central government money and expertise into Sunni-dominated areas now that violence there has greatly diminished.
The Americans have been pressuring Maliki, with only limited success, to bring the new American allies into the Iraqi military and police forces and to form and fund civilian labor corps with others who would work to rebuild devastated regions.
The US military already has spent vast sums on public works projects nationwide in attempts to improve schools, boost electricity and potable water service, pave roads, and rebuild sewer systems.
But yesterday's announcement appears to have been the first American operation that publicly declared an intention to at once kill and capture Al Qaeda fighters while pushing to improve the lives of Iraqi people in other ways.
The statement from Odierno said the division and brigade-level operation would "synchronize lethal and nonlethal effects to exploit recent security gains and disrupt terrorist support zones and enemy command and control."
US commanders credit the Sunni backlash against the terrorist group with helping reduce violence over the past six months. But devastating attacks persist even as Iraqi casualties are down by 55 percent nationwide since June 2007, according to an Associated Press count.
The recent bombings are the clearest indication that Al Qaeda in Iraq - believed to consist mainly of Iraqis but to have foreign leadership - is worried about losing the support of fellow Sunni Arabs, Major General Kevin Bergner, the US military spokesman, said last week.
The attacks come as the extremists have been pushed out of their former stronghold in Anbar Province west of Baghdad to the east and north, and appear to be concentrated in Diyala Province to the northeast of the capital and in Mosul to the far north.