U.S. Launches Air Attack In Iraq

U.S. jets and helicopter gunships launched the biggest air operation in central Iraq since active combat ended, blasting suspected ambush sites and hideouts with 500-pound bombs on Tuesday. Explosions rocked western Baghdad as American troops mounted fresh attacks against insurgents.

While the military stepped up its campaign to put down anti-U.S. guerrillas, it also claimed progress on another front — preventing foreign fighters from entering Iraq from neighboring nations to carry out attacks on American forces.

Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr., commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, said the number of U.S. soldiers in Anbar province, bordering Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, has been tripled in the past two months to 20,000. That, he said, has curbed infiltrations.

"We are not fighting foreign fighters coming across the border in significant numbers," Swannack said. "We are fighting mostly ... locals" loyal to Saddam Hussein's ousted regime.

Insurgents struck again Tuesday, wounding two U.S. soldiers with a roadside bomb in the northern city of Mosul, the military said. The military also said a U.S. civilian contractor was killed Monday by a land mine near Baghdad.

In other developments:

  • An Iraqi militant group called Muhammad's Army claimed responsibility for the downing of a U.S. helicopter on Nov. 2 that killed 16 soldiers. The group warned that U.S. forces would face more attacks if they did not leave Iraq in 15 days. There was no way to independently verify the claims.
  • A Pentagon memo details active cooperation between Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network and Saddam Hussein's regime from the early 1990s to as late as 2003. Senate Intelligence Committee leaders plan to ask the Justice Department to investigate who leaked the top-secret memo.
  • President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said Tuesday the Philippines would consider withdrawing its 96 troops from Iraq if the security situation there worsens. But Foreign Secretary Blas Ople said there are no plans to pull the contingent out now, despite a rise in terror attacks on coalition forces.
  • A U.S. military court opened a hearing Tuesday into allegations that an American lieutenant colonel manhandled and threatened to kill an Iraqi detainee, allegedly firing his gun near the man to get information on an alleged plot to kill him.
  • Tens of thousands of people gathered at a Roman basilica Tuesday to pay their final respects to 19 Italians killed in a truck bombing in Iraq and the entire nation observed a day of mourning — a unified outpouring of grief in a country deeply divided over the Iraq war.
  • Despite plans for massive anti-war protests during President Bush's visit to London this week, an ICM poll published in the Guardian newspaper suggest more Britons support the visit than don't, few think America is dangerous, and support for the Iraq war is rising.

    The air activity Tuesday was centered around Baqouba, 30 miles northeast of Baghdad. U.S. jets and Apache helicopter gunships blasted abandoned buildings, walls and trees along a road where attacks have been so common that troops nicknamed it "RPG Alley" after the rocket-propelled grenades used by insurgents.

    Fighter-bombers dropped 500-pound bombs and battle tanks fired their 120mm guns at suspected ambush sites, the military said.

    Elsewhere, F-16 fighter aircraft bombed insurgent targets near the town of Samara, about 60 miles north of Baghdad, the military said.

    The stepped-up military operations followed an escalation in insurgent attacks over the past three weeks. In response, the U.S. military announced "Operation Iron Hammer" aimed at striking at suspected rebel targets before insurgents have the chance to attack.

    The strategy appeared aimed at showing U.S. resolve as Washington prepares to hand over political power to a new Iraqi provisional government by the end of June. However, the heavy hand risks further alienating an Iraqi population already chafing under foreign military occupation.

    During a news conference in Baghdad, Swannack, whose division is responsible for Anbar province, said the robust tactic "demonstrates our resolve."

    "We will use force, overwhelming combat power when it's necessary," he added.

    Swannack, whose troops patrol such hotspots as Fallujah, Ramadi and the borders with Syria and Saudi Arabia, said he believes most of the insurgents are Iraqis.

    "Ninety percent of the cases are from regime loyalists and (Iraqi) Wahhabis," he said. Wahhabis are members of a strict Islamic sect that dominates Saudi Arabia and has followers in Iraq.

    He said 13 foreign fighters were recently captured in Anbar province and seven were killed. He did not have their nationalities nor other details.

    At the same time, U.S. forces are pulling out of some hotspot towns to hand over security powers to Iraqis.

    Swannack said he will withdraw his troops from the center of Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, by the first of the year, following a pullout from the town of Samara the past weekend.

    Swannack said the Americans would be able to move in quickly in Ramadi if problems arose, an assurance also made by officials in Samara. But the Iraqi civil defense chief in Samara pleaded for the Americans' return.

    "We cannot handle this on our own," Capt. Ihsan Aziz told The Associated Press, saying looters and pro-Saddam guerrillas could move in to fill the vacuum.

    Paratroopers searched neighborhoods in Ramadi late Monday, detained about a dozen people and seized explosives and other materials for making roadside bombs, a major threat to American troops, the 82nd Airborne Division said.

    The statement said one man was arrested after troops found "jihad signup sheets" in his house. The man, who was not identified, was suspected of financing and supervising the placement of roadside bombs around the city, the division said.

    In Mosul, the 101st Airborne Division seized two weapons caches late Monday during an operation around the Qayyarah West Airfield, the military said.