BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. and Iraqi military forces launched a large operation Wednesday to weed out insurgents and seize illegal weapons, with troops, helicopters and armored vehicles raiding a suspected arms market in the capital.
The council requested that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan send back a U.N. team to help organize a government that will take over from the U.S.-led coalition June 30, council spokesman Hamid al-Kafaai told The Associated Press.
The letter sent by council president Mohammed Bahr al-Ulloum, a Shiite cleric, also requested technical assistance in preparation for a general election due by the end of January 2005.
Wednesday's raid on the suspected arms market came during a week in which gunmen, in two separate attacks, killed two Europeans and four American missionaries working on water projects. The six killings suggest the insurgents are going after civilians to undermine reconstruction efforts.
The operation that began Wednesday — called "Iron Promise" (search) — was expected to involve thousands of U.S. troops from the Fort Hood, Texas-based 1st Cavalry Division, which has recently arrived in Iraq, and the outgoing Germany-based 1st Armored Division. Scores of Iraqi Civil Defense Corps soldiers were also involved.
In the first raid, about 250 troops from the armored division's 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment as well as 250 Iraqi soldiers fanned out across the sprawling 20th Street Market, in the city's Al-Bayaa district, which sells everything from vegetables to used car parts.
In one car repair shop, U.S. troops found a pair of rocket-propelled grenade launchers and burlap sacks full of grenades. They arrested three men.
Some stores are suspected of supplying weapons to the rebels, said the raid's commander, Lt. Col. Chuck Williams, 40, from Sterling, Va. He said the market assault was the start of a citywide crackdown on the guerrillas.
"There is a lot of pressure everywhere. It is all over town. The big things we are looking for is people moving weapons, IED (improvised explosive device) materials and explosives and ammunition. Our soldiers are looking to deter or discover this activity. We want to shut it off," he said.
In the latest example, a homemade bomb exploded in central Baghdad Wednesday, wounding a U.S. soldier and two Iraqi security personnel as they patrolled the area, U.S. Army Col. Peter Jones said.
Brig. Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of 1st Armored, had said the operation would be timed to take advantage of the huge numbers of U.S. troops in Baghdad at the moment. Dempsey has some 45,000 U.S. and Iraqi forces at his disposal.
With helicopters hovering overhead, forces in Bradley fighting vehicles and Humvees circled the market to prevent rebels from escaping. Troops then went store to store searching for weapons and guerrilla suspects. Few residents criticized the search, and the mood was relaxed.
"There are so many places to run and hide. That's why we have to lock it down. We could easily spend a few days doing this. But we basically just want the bad guys to know that we are still here," said Maj. Gregg Softy, 38, of Hyde Park, N.Y.
Dempsey said his unit spent two months gathering intelligence on targets to be raided: religious and political extremists, foreign fighters, Iraqi rebels and weapons caches. The operation will continue for the next few days, the military said.
Also Wednesday, insurgents used dynamite to attack an overpass on the main highway leading from Baghdad to Jordan, causing it to partly collapse and block one side of the road, witnesses said.
The highway is regularly used by U.S. military convoys and allows them to avoid the adjacent service road that runs through Fallujah and Ramadi, two cities in the so-called Sunni Triangle (search), a hotbed of anti-coalition activity. U.S. troops come under repeated attacks whenever they pass through the two cities.
In the northern city of Mosul, an Iraqi soldier was killed and three wounded when an explosive device blew up next to their vehicle as they were escorting an oil tanker truck, a Mosul police officer said. Three suspects were arrested.
A U.S. Bradley fighting vehicle overturned in central Iraq on Wednesday, killing one 1st Infantry Division soldier and injuring two, a U.S. official said.
Late Tuesday, unidentified assailants fired mortars that smashed into a house in south Baghdad, killing two Iraqi children, local residents said.