Iraq: Largest Air Assault Since 2003

In this hand out photo released by U.S. military, Iraqi Army Soldiers of 4th Iraqi Army Division exit a CH-47 Chinook helicopter in support of Operation Swarmer in Samarra, Iraq, Thursday, March 16, 2006. AP

In a well-publicized show of force, U.S. and Iraqi forces swept into the countryside north of the capital in 50 helicopters Thursday looking for insurgents in what the American military called its "largest air assault" in nearly three years.

The military said the assault — Operation Swarmer — detained 41 people, found stolen uniforms and captured weapons including explosives used in making roadside bombs. It said the operation would continue over several days. CBS News correspondent Lara Logan reports U.S. and Iraqi forces have been planning the raid for weeks, using intelligence gathered from local sources.

There was no bombing or firing from the air in the offensive northeast of Samarra, a town 60 miles north of Baghdad, the U.S. military said. All 50 aircraft were helicopters — Black Hawks, Apaches and Chinooks — used to ferry in and provide cover for the 1,450 Iraqi and U.S. troops.

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

Operation Swarmer came as the Bush administration was attempting to show critics at home and abroad that it is dealing effectively with Iraq's insurgency and increasingly sectarian violence.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan denied the offensive was tied to the new campaign to change opinion about the war. "This was a decision made by our commanders," he said, adding that President Bush was briefed but did not specifically authorize the operation.

In other recent developments:

  • The Marines have begun a criminal investigation into the killing of 15 Iraqi civilians during a firefight when a Marine foot patrol was ambushed by insurgents in November 2005, reports CBS News correspondent David Martin. A human rights group tipped off a reporter from Time magazine that the civilians may not have been killed by a roadside bomb as reported by the Marines at the time.

  • The House voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to give President Bush $92 billion more for Iraq and Gulf Coast hurricane relief, despite bipartisan worries about the ballooning costs of the war and the recovery effort. The bulk of the bill, $67.6 billion, would pay for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • Iraq's new parliament was sworn in Thursday, with parties still deadlocked over the next government. The long-expected first session lasted just over 30 minutes and was adjourned indefinitely because the legislature still has no speaker.

  • Police reported the discovery of 27 more bodies discarded in various parts of Baghdad late Wednesday and early Thursday.

  • The U.S. military dispatched a battalion of soldiers, about 700 troops, to Iraq to provide extra security for Shiite holy cities as tens of thousands of pilgrims converged for a major religious commemoration that came under attack in the two previous years.

  • The Department of Defense said a U.S. soldier was killed by mortar fire southwest of Baghdad. At least 2,311 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

  • Iraq's Interior Minister said that some 421 al-Qaeda fighters tried to infiltrate an Iraqi army battalion responsible for guarding all the check points and entrances to the green zone, where the U.S. embassy and key government posts are housed in the Baghdad, reports Lara Logan.

  • Bob Woodruff, the co-anchor of "World News Tonight," is out of a military medical facility in Maryland. ABC News says Woodruff, who suffered severe head injuries in a roadside bombing in Iraq in January, will continue his recovery at a private hospital.

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