BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. jets and helicopter gunships launched the biggest air operation in central Iraq (search) 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 Saddam loyalists.
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 (search), 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 (search) ousted regime.
Saddam loyalists 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.
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 Saddam loyalists.
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 targets near the town of Samara, about 60 miles north of Baghdad, the military said.
U.S. troops fired mortars late Tuesday on areas used by Saddam loyalists to launch mortar and rocket attacks against coalition forces in another night of huge explosions in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit. One group of Bradley fighting vehicles and armored personnel carrier fired 17 mortar rounds toward a bunker that was part of Saddam's former military defenses south of the town and an outlying farm to the north.
Lt. Colin Crow, who oversaw the mortar firing, said the targets were uninhabited and the attacks were meant to scare enemies from using them as platforms for assaults. "Basically, were kind of claiming the ground that the enemy is using at us," he said. "They have to move further and further out."
Meanwhile, U.S. officials gave more details of an attack carried out Sunday. The Army launched a short-range missile that hit a house south of Tikrit owned by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a former Iraqi official the U.S. military accuses of being behind many attacks against coalition forces, a Defense Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. There was no indication anyone was inside at the time.
The stepped-up military operations followed an escalation in attacks over the past three weeks. In response, the U.S. military announced "Operation Iron Hammer" aimed at striking at suspected rebel targets before Saddam loyalists 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 attackers 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.