U.S. and Iraqi forces captured more than 30 suspected insurgents and found at least six major caches of weapons near the town of Samarra on Thursday, during the first day of what the U.S. military says is the largest air assault operation since the early weeks of the war. A military spokesman says more than half the troops were Iraqi, bringing the combat operations of the new Iraqi Army to a new level.
A spokesman for the U.S. 101st Airborne Division says troops found artillery shells, explosives and material for making the insurgency's deadliest weapons - roadside bombs. Major Tom Bryant says the troops also found instruction manuals for how to make the bombs, as well as medical supplies and military uniforms that insurgents could have used to gain access to restricted areas.
The major says the troops went into the area on U.S. helicopters with gunships in support, but no airborne weapons were fired. Major Bryant says the operation brought cooperation between U.S. and Iraqi forces to a new level.
"Conducting a combined air assault operation is a very complex, difficult thing to do, and they have performed extremely well," said Major Bryant. "The Iraqi Army soldiers were inside the same aircraft, side-by-side with our troops as they assaulted the objectives. Basically, we landed the aircraft right near a number of the objective areas, quickly exited the aircraft and secured the areas. So they performed the exact same role in the air assault as our troops did."
Major Bryant says about 800 of the 1,500 troops involved in the assault were Iraqi. He says the operation is expected to continue for several days.
The target area is northeast of Samarra, where insurgents destroyed a famous Shi'ite mosque last month, sparking a series of violent incidents in several parts of Iraq that some observers believe pushed the country close to civil war.
But Major Bryant says Thursday's operation was not directly related to such concerns.
"The local leaders stepped up across the province immediately after that mosque bombing occurred, spoke to their fellow-citizens, called for calm and peace, and asked the citizens of Salah a-Din to not fall prey to the easy option of starting a big fight," he said. "And we did not see a big increase in violence in this province."
In an interview with CNN television, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said insurgents were trying to establish a center of operations in the area, like they had in Fallujah in 2004. It took a large and bloody coalition operation late that year to push the insurgents out of that stronghold. The foreign minister said the insurgents cannot be allowed to establish such a stronghold again.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan says this operation is just one of a series of offensives aimed at defeating the insurgency.
"There have been a number of operations that have been undertaken over the course of the last several months to really go after the terrorists, and the Saddam loyalists, who want to return to the past of oppression and tyranny," said Scott McClellan. "So this operation is part of our ongoing efforts to move forward on the security front."
This offensive, code-named Operation Swarmer, follows a smaller effort west of Samarra earlier this month, that also yielded large caches of insurgent weapons and equipment.
Scott McClellan says the increase in civil strife has made the situation in Iraq more difficult, but he said this operation was not significant enough to require approval by President Bush.
"It's important that the commanders have the flexibility to make these type of tactical decisions in order to prevail," he noted. "And we're making a lot of important progress on the ground in Iraq. But this is a difficult time period."
The White House spokesman says President Bush was briefed on the operation on Thursday, not long after it was launched.