U.S. military officials are casting doubt on Iraqi reports that the Egyptian leader of the group al-Qaida in Iraq has been wounded.  VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from Irbil.

Iraqi television cited Interior Ministry officials as saying Abu Ayyub al-Masri had been wounded and his top aide killed in a gun battle north of Baghdad Thursday. But U.S. military officials said Friday that they have no evidence indicating the report is true.

Iraqi and U.S. troops have been conducting sweeps through insurgent strongholds in and around the capital as part of the new "Operation Law and Order" aimed at reducing violence.

U.S. military leaders say there have been fewer attacks in recent days, as the operation expanded and new checkpoints sprung up across the city.  Some have attributed the drop in attacks to insurgents going into hiding or fleeing the city.

U.S. officials say the crackdown will last months, as forces seize and secure more and more of the city. Major General Joseph Fil, the commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, said Friday that the operation will expand as quickly as new troops arrive.

"The pace of operations, the tempo, is based not on how quickly we can clear, but on how fast we can stand up the forces to control," he said.

More than 17,000 additional American troops are expected to join the Baghdad operation in the coming months. The general also said the performance of Iraqi police and soldiers has improved.

"I've been watching this closely, not only over the past three months, but, frankly, over the past three years," he said.  "They're much more capable, they're much more committed, and they are much better led."

On Friday in Baghdad, a policeman manning a checkpoint in the city said Iraqi and U.S. forces have learned from the mistakes of the past.

"God willing, we will succeed this time.  We now understand why the other plans failed," he said.  "We will work together with the army to make the project succeed."

In the town of Hillah, some 95 kilometers south of Baghdad, Iraqi forces said Friday they arrested about 34 armed followers of the Shi'ite cult named  "Soldiers of Heaven."  Members fought a massive battle with U.S. and Iraqi forces last month in which officials say at least 263 members were killed.

Iraqi and U.S. officials have released few details about the incident. But the group was allegedly planning to kill Shi'ite clerics to try to fulfill the conditions for what they believe will be the return of a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.