RAMADI, Iraq – Hundreds of American and Iraqi troops backed by a U.S. gunship pushed into an insurgent-infested section of eastern Ramadi, expanding their campaign to bolster their presence in one of Iraq's most violent cities.
No U.S. casualties were reported but six insurgents were thought to have been killed by fire from the AC-130 Spectre gunship in the initial hours of the operation, U.S. commanders on the ground said. Sporadic gunfire between U.S. troops and insurgent snipers echoed throughout the neighborhood.
The troops were trying to establish a new outpost in Ramadi's eastern Mulaab neighborhood that would allow U.S. and Iraqi troops to better patrol a troublesome area where insurgents have frequently attacked.
The outpost would be less than a mile deeper into the city from their current base.
"It's one of the first steps to moving into areas of the city that have not had a large coalition or Iraqi presence for a long time, if ever," said Col. Sean MacFarland, commander of the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division that oversees the city.
Soldiers also scoured through dozens of homes in the area, finding several weapons caches and equipment used to construct roadside bombs.
During a similar operation on Sunday, U.S. troops erected two outposts in the southern half of the city to allow Iraqi soldiers to begin patrolling an area that has rarely seen any U.S. or Iraqi forces.
U.S. commanders said the move wasn't the precursor to a rumored offensive to drive insurgents from Ramadi -- but rather an "isolation" tactic to prevent the fighters from receiving arms and reinforcements from outside.
Ramadi is the capital of Anbar province, a huge, restive area to the west of Baghdad.
American forces already controlled other routes into the city, and the construction of the two southern outposts suggests U.S. and Iraqi commanders are taking a gradual approach to confronting what some call the capital of the insurgency.
Ramadi is one of Iraq's most violent cities, with roadside bombings and gunbattles daily. U.S. patrols have been confined to small sections of the city, and tribal leaders who have cooperated with U.S. forces have been assassinated or forced to flee.
The go-slow approach could be an indication the military wants to avoid a full-scale assault like that in nearby Fallujah in November 2004, which enraged Sunni Arabs. Iraq's new unity government is trying to persuade fighters in the Sunni-led insurgency to disarm.
No doubt Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would prefer to avoid large-scale combat in Ramadi as he tries to bring together Iraq's often warring ethnic and sectarian communities.
He says he will in coming days present a national reconciliation plan, under which his government already has begun releasing 2,500 prisoners, most of them Sunni Arabs from places like Ramadi.
City residents had feared a Fallujah-style offensive on the city, but joint U.S.-Iraqi operations over the past two days have focused on limited residential areas bordering on the city's southern and eastern perimeters.
According to the United Nations' IRIN news agency, nearly 1,500 families -- or about 10,000 people -- fled Ramadi. There was no way to independently determine which number was more accurate.
U.S. soldiers reported that streets from the city center to the eastern edge were devoid of traffic. U.S. soldiers searching through homes found several to be deserted.
"A large majority of the houses we entered today were vacant. Some people have taken their belongings and moved to the more rural areas around Ramadi, having expected a large coalition operation," said Capt. Joe Claburn, 29, of the 1st Battalion, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.
Lt. Col. Ronald Clark called the Mulaab neighborhood targeted in the latest push "one of the most dangerous areas in all of Iraq." Clark said the new outpost would degrade the insurgency's capabilities -- and its image -- among local residents.
"When you plant a flag on the enemy's favorite playground, that sends a very strong signal to the Iraqi people and to the enemy," said Clark, commander of the 1st battalion.