Published March 16, 2006
Coalition forces launched the largest air assault in Iraq since U.S. forces invaded that country in 2003, the U.S. military confirmed Thursday.
The operation, which began Thursday morning, is expected to continue for several days ahead of the Shiite Muslim holiday. U.S. military commanders say the operation was largely carried out by Iraqi forces based on tips from other Iraqis.
Coalition forces have dubbed the assault "Operation Swarmer," which is an operation consisting of about 1,500 soldiers in all, including the Iraqi Army's 1st Brigade, 4th Division, the 101st Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team and the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade.
The assault is a combination of air and ground operations involving more than 200 tactical vehicles and more than 50 aircraft also participated in the operation.
According to the Coalition Press Information Center, initial reports indicate that a number of enemy weapons caches have been captured, containing artillery shells, explosives, IED-making materials, and military uniforms. Troops also captured several people, according to CPIC.
Maj. Tom Bryant of the 101st Airborne Division told FOX News on Thursday that the No. 1 priority of the mission is to deny safe haven for insurgent forces.
"This is absolutely an opportunity to deny terrorists, insurgents, an area in which to operate," Bryant said, noting that the area in question is about 60 miles north of Baghdad and is a very large, rural objective area.
"We'll continue to search until we've made absolutely certain there are no weapons out there that the bad guys can use against us," Bryant continued, adding, "we have not faced any kind of resistance that we've not been able to handle."
Although intelligence helped coalition and Iraqi commanders determine where to focus on, Bryant said military forces were not targeting one specific insurgent group. He also said the operation was an "Iraqi-generated mission." "Their forces, their soldiers did a tremendous job," he added.
But one U.S. military official told FOX News, "it's possible there was insurgent leadership in the area" of the air assault. "There obviously was something large and important here that would warrant this operation," the official said.
The assault came as Iraq's new parliament was sworn in Thursday, with parties still deadlocked over the next government, vehicles banned from Baghdad's streets to prevent car bombings and the country under the shadow of a feared civil war.
The inaugural session started the clock on a 60-day period in which parliament must elect a president and approve a prime minister and Cabinet.
Pulling the Enemy 'Out by the Roots'
Samarra, located in north central Iraq on the Tigris River, was the scene of fierce fighting between Sunni insurgents and U.S. forces in 2004. The town is a pilgrimage center for Shiite Muslims. The Salah Ad Din province is a major part of the "Sunni triangle" where insurgents have been active. Saddam Hussein was captured in the province, not far from its capital and his hometown, Tikrit.
The 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."
Iraq's interim Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari 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," Zebari said in a cable television interview. "They have to be pulled out by the roots."
Ret. U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Bob Scales said Samarra is a symbol for the insurgency in Iraq.
"This is a fight not just for the control of a population but for the insurgents to sort of reinstate themselves by owning geography and Samarra is the one city where they think they can do that," Scales said.
He said coalition forces are getting better intelligence each month because an increasing number of Iraqis are confident that their country will be better off once the terror elements within are wiped out.
"It's the type of thing that in an insurgency, is really the key to the crown," Scales said of actionable intelligence that allows operations such as Operation Swarmer to be carried out.
Ret. Army Lt. Col David Hunt, agreed that this kind of military operation would not have been launched without some very specific intelligence regarding the location and plans of Al Qaeda.
"We would not commit this kind of manpower … and the amount of equipment it takes planning to do an air assault … without very specific, very good intelligence," said Hunt.
The difference between Thursday's operation and the "shock and awe" campaign launched by U.S. forces when they first invaded Iraq is that the strikes launched three years ago were primarily by air. Thursday's airborne assault, on the other hand, allowed the largest insertion of coalition forces into enemy strongholds on the ground.
"This is really an air-ground op but it allows you to insert a lag number of troops with tactical surprise," explained Ret. U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Tom McInerney. "That's why this is effective, they know that there are people that are watching them very closely so what they're trying to do is get that tactical surprise. They know Al Qaeda's in that area so they're trying to disrupt Al Qaeda."
McInerney, a FOX News military analyst, said Al Qaeda has been trying to stir up trouble by launching attacks that may lead some to believe that sectarian violence in plaguing Iraq. Hundreds of people have been killed since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra, creating concern that the country may be tipping toward civil war.
A U.S. defense official told FOX News that the recent decision the send some 700 U.S. soldiers back into Iraq from their standby position in neighboring Kuwait freed up forces to launch this air assault and allowed U.S., coalition and Iraqi forces to take on a more offensive role.
Amid ongoing sectarian violence, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, ordered those forces back into Iraq over the past week because of the upcoming holiday and insecurity surrounding efforts to form a new government.
The 101st Airborne Division has been in and out of Iraq since the start of the war; this is the largest air assault operation because this division hasn't done anything on this scale thus far.
Operation Swarmer comes on the heels of a combined Iraqi-coalition operation west of Samarra in early March that resulted in the capture of substantial enemy weapons and equipment caches, according to coalition forces.
The name "Swarmer" comes from the name given to the largest peacetime airborne maneuvers ever conducted, in spring 1950 in North Carolina, according to CPIC. Soon after this exercise, the 187th Infantry was selected to deploy to Korea as an Airborne Regimental Combat Team to provide General MacArthur with an airborne capability.
FOX News' Bret Baier, Nick Simeone, Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.