- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2006

BAGHDAD — In a well-publicized show of force, U.S. and Iraqi troops yesterday launched what the military described as the largest air assault since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, targeting insurgent strongholds north of the capital.

The U.S. military said the raid, dubbed Operation Swarmer, was aimed at clearing “a suspected insurgent operating area” northeast of Samarra and was expected to last several days. The Pentagon said 41 persons were arrested but it was not clear if suspected insurgents put up any resistance.

Residents in the targeted area said there was a heavy U.S. and Iraqi troop presence and large explosions could be heard in the distance. The U.S. military said there was no firing or bombing from the air and the source of the blasts was not known.

“More than 1,500 Iraqi and coalition troops, over 200 tactical vehicles, and more than 50 aircraft participated in the operation,” the military said.

The U.S. command in Baghdad said it was the largest number of aircraft used to insert troops and the largest number of troops inserted by air, although larger numbers of troops overall have been involved in previous operations.

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Venable said no bombs, missiles or other ordnance were fired from the helicopters. He said more than 650 U.S. troops and more than 800 Iraqi soldiers took part in the operation.

Gen. John Abizaid, chief of the U.S. Central Command, told reporters at the Pentagon the operation was not related to any anticipated outburst of sectarian violence in the area or a significant departure from previous military actions.

Gen. Abizaid said it was aimed at al Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgent groups although there was “no specific high-value target that I know of.”

“I wouldn’t characterize this as being anything that’s a big departure from normal or from the need to prosecute a target that we think was lucrative enough to commit this much force to go get,” he said.

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,” Mr. Zebari said on CNN. “They have to be pulled out by the roots.”

Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, was the site of a massive bombing against one of Shi’ite Iraq’s holiest shrines on Feb. 22. The attack touched off sectarian bloodshed that has killed more than 500 and injured hundreds more, threatening to plunge Iraq into civil war.

It is a key city in Salahuddin Province, a major part of the so-called Sunni Triangle where insurgents have been active since shortly after the U.S.-led invasion. Saddam Hussein was captured in the province, not far from its capital and his hometown, Tikrit.

The military operation, residents said, appeared to be concentrated near four villages — Jillam, Mamlaha, Banat Hassan and Bukaddou — about 20 miles 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.”

Near the end of the first day of the operation, the military said a number of weapons caches had been captured, containing artillery shells, explosives, bomb-making materials and military uniforms.

The units of the 101st Airborne Division that are involved in this operation are equipped with Apache attack helicopters, Black Hawk transport helicopters and Chinook helicopters that are capable of lifting and moving vehicle like Humvees.

In its description of the operation, the 101st Airborne Division used the term “air assault,” which refers to the use of attack and transport helicopters to move infantry soldiers to a ground target or group of targets. It does not generally include fixed-wing warplanes like fighter jets or bombers, and there was no early indication that such planes played a predominant role in the assault.

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