BAGHDAD - Hundreds of American and Iraqi troops backed by helicopters descended yesterday on a remote desert area southwest of Baghdad to root out Al Qaeda in Iraq and search for two US soldiers missing since a deadly insurgent ambush six months ago.
Acting on intelligence, the soldiers dug through heaps of sand and went house-to-house in two Sunni villages near the boundary with Anbar Province after a dramatic predawn air assault.
US officers said there was no sign of the missing soldiers - including Army Specialist Alex R. Jimenez of Lawrence, Mass. - but emphasized that it was only the first day of the operation, which also is intended to establish a long-term presence west of the Euphrates River in a former Al Qaeda stronghold.
Colonel Dominic Caraccilo, the commander of the Third Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, said his troops were taking advantage of anti-Al Qaeda sentiment among Sunnis that the military says has played a major part in reducing violence in Baghdad and surrounding areas.
"The more safe it gets, the easier it is for us to move around, and the more we can interact with the populace," Caraccilo said in a telephone interview. "The more we can interact with the populace, the more they will tell us things."
The raids began about 4 a.m. after two Chinook helicopters and eight Black Hawks dropped more than 600 US and Iraqi soldiers into the villages of Owesap and Betra, about 15 miles southwest of the Iraqi capital.
Jimenez and Private Byron W. Fouty of Waterford, Mich., were seized May 12 when insurgents attacked and overran a checkpoint in the volatile area south of Baghdad known as the "triangle of death."
A third soldier, Private First Class Joseph Anzack Jr., was also captured during the raid, but his body was found May 23 floating in the Euphrates River. Four US soldiers and an Iraqi translator were killed during the ambush.
Meanwhile, US troops killed two Al Qaeda-linked militants and detained 12 in raids southeast of Baghdad and in Ramadi, Mosul, and Kirkuk, the military said.
Iraqi police said eight Al Qaeda fighters were killed in a separate event near Moqdadiyah, about 60 miles north of Baghdad.