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US troops, aircraft attack insurgents in central Iraq

BAGHDAD -- US jets and helicopter gunships launched the biggest air operation in central Iraq since active combat ended, blasting suspected ambush sites and hideouts with 500-pound bombs yesterday. Explosions rocked western Baghdad as American troops mounted fresh attacks against insurgents.

While the military stepped up its campaign to put down anti-US guerrillas, it also reported progress in preventing foreign fighters from entering Iraq to carry out attacks on US forces.

Major General Charles H. Swannack Jr., commander of the 82d Airborne Division, said the number of US soldiers in Anbar province -- bordering Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia -- has been tripled to 20,000 in the past two months. 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 ousted regime.

Insurgents wounded two US soldiers with a roadside bomb yesterday in the northern city of Mosul, the military said. The military also said that a US civilian contractor was killed Monday by a land mine near Baghdad.

The air activity yesterday was centered around Baqouba, 30 miles northeast of Baghdad. US 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 often used by insurgents.

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 insurgent targets near the town of Samara, about 60 miles north of Baghdad, the military said.

The stepped-up military operations followed an escalation in insurgent attacks over the past three weeks. In response, the US military announced Operation Iron Hammer, which is intended to strike suspected rebel targets before insurgents have the chance to attack.

The strategy is intended to show US resolve as Washington prepares to hand over political power to a new Iraqi provisional government by the end of June. However, the forceful approach risks further alienating a population already chafing under foreign military occupation.

During a press 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 that most of the insurgents 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. Meanwhile, US forces are pulling out of some hotspot towns to hand over security powers to Iraqis. Swannack said he will withdraw 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.

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