U.S. launches air assault on Baghdad

Largest attack since invasion

Operation concentrated near Jillam, Mamlaha, Banat Hassan and Bukaddou villagesExpected to continue over several days against targets in Salahuddin provinceBid to stop formation of new insurgent strongholds

BAGHDAD: U.S. forces on Thursday launched what was termed the largest air assault since the U.S.-led invasion, targeting insurgent strongholds north of the capital, the U.S. military said. The American troops were joined by the Iraqi army.

Residents in the area said there was a heavy U.S. and Iraqi troop presence in the area and that large explosions could be heard in the distance.

It was not clear if the U.S. aircraft had carried out any raids nor were there reports of insurgent resistance.

Focus on 4 villages

The operation, residents said, appeared to be concentrated near four villages Jillam, Mamlaha, Banat Hassan and Bukaddou about 30 km north of Samarra. The villages are near the highway leading from Samarra to the city of Adwar.

Waqas al-Juwanya, a spokesman for Iraq's joint coordination center in nearby Dowr, said ``unknown gunmen exist in this area, killing and kidnapping policemen, soldiers and civilians.''

The military said the operation was expected to continue over several days against insurgent targets in Salahuddin province, where Samarra is a key city.

``More than 1,500 Iraqi and Coalition troops, over 200 tactical vehicles, and more than 50 aircraft participated in the operation,'' the military statement said of the attack designed to ``clear a suspected insurgent operating area northeast of Samarra," 95 km north of Baghdad.

Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi interim foreign minister, said the attack had been necessary to prevent insurgents from forming a new stronghold such as they had established in Fallujah, west of Baghdad.

``After Fallujah and some of the operations carried out successfully in the Euphrates and Syrian border many of the insurgents moved to areas nearer to Baghdad,'' Zebari said on CNN. ``They have to be pulled out by the roots.''

It was still not clear if the joint U.S.-Iraqi operation had met any overt resistance.

The province is a major part of the so-called Sunni triangle where insurgents have been active since shortly after the U.S.-led invasion three years ago. Saddam Hussein was captured in the province, not far from its capital, Tikrit.

Near the end of the first day of the operation, the military said, ``a number of enemy weapons caches have been captured, containing artillery shells, explosives, IED-making materials, and military uniforms.''

It said the attack began with soldiers from the Iraqi Army's 1st Brigade, 4th Division, the 101st Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team and the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade conducting a combined air and ground assault to isolate the objective area.

Air power backed the operation and delivered troops from the Iraq Army's 4th Division, the Rakkasans from 1st and 3rd Battalions, 187th Infantry Regiment and the Hunters from 2nd Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment to multiple objectives.

The military said forces from the 2nd Commando Brigade then completed a ground infiltration to secure numerous structures in the area. AP

Operation Swarmer

A Reuters report quoting military statement said "Operation Swarmer" was launched on Thursday morning and would ``continue for several days as a thorough search of the objective area is conducted''. "Initial reports indicate that a number of weapons caches have been captured'' the statement said.