- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 18, 2003

BAGHDAD — U.S. jets and helicopter gunships launched the biggest air operation in central Iraq since active combat ended, blasting suspected ambush sites and hide-outs with 500-pound bombs yesterday.

Explosions rocked western Baghdad as American troops mounted fresh attacks against insurgents.

While the U.S. military stepped up its campaign to put down 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 infiltration.

“We are not fighting foreign fighters coming across the border in significant numbers,” Gen. Swannack said. “We are fighting mostly locals” loyal to Saddam Husseins ousted regime.

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

Meanwhile in New York, diplomats at the United Nations said yesterday the United States wants a new U.N. resolution to endorse the agreement between the Iraqi Governing Council and the U.S.-led coalition for a transfer of power to a provisional Iraqi government in June 2004.

The State Department plans to start work on drafting the new resolution and close ally Britain may also be preparing language, the diplomats said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

After months of arguing that the Governing Council should draft a constitution and hold elections before a transfer of power, the United States dramatically shifted its policy last week in the face of growing anti-American sentiment and attacks in Iraq.

The air activity yesterday focused on 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.

Warplanes dropped 500-pound bombs and battle tanks fired their 120 mm 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” to strike at suspected rebel targets before insurgents have the chance to attack.

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

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

“We will use force, overwhelming combat power when its necessary,” he added.

Gen. Swannack, whose troops patrol such trouble spots as Fallujah, Ramadi and the borders with Syria and Saudi Arabia, 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.

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