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U.S. planes batter militants' havens

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD -- U.S. warplanes hammered suspected Sunni militant hideouts on the southern outskirts of Baghdad yesterday as part of a wide-ranging military assault on al-Qaida in Iraq around the country.

American aircraft dropped 49,000 pounds of bombs on the lush farm region of Arab Jabour, said military spokesman Maj. Alayne Conway, calling it "one of the largest airstrikes since the onset of the war."

Most of the bombs were unleashed in a 10-minute flurry during the morning, followed by more strikes through the late afternoon. The targets were mainly munitions buried deep in the ground, Conway said.

The bombardment, which called in F-18s, F-16s and B-1 bombers, fell on the third day of Operation Phantom Phoenix, an offensive that has U.S. and Iraqi troops hunting down suspected al-Qaida in Iraq militants and supporters around Baghdad, in eastern Diyala province and the northern provinces of Salahuddin, Al Tamim and Nineveh.

However, the military assault in the Arab Jabour region just south of Baghdad began New Year's Day, ahead of Phantom Phoenix.

"We are going after the remaining pockets of resistance" south of the capital, Conway said.

An estimated 90,000 pounds of explosives have been dropped in parts of six provinces across central Iraq so far in January, almost double the monthly average for U.S.-led forces in those areas, Conway said.

The U.S. assault on the southern edge of Baghdad follows a recent spike in insurgent attacks around the capital.

A spokesman for an Awakening Council based in the south Baghdad suburb of Dora warned yesterday that civilians had been trapped in the Arab Jabour region by the heavy American military activity in recent days.

Alaa Ithawi, the spokesman, said the Americans had told Dora residents to move 10 days earlier, but not everyone had listened. He conceded that extremists operated in the area but said the bombings risked alienating more people.

"People are admitting there are gunmen, but to have civilians as targets is a crime against humanity," Ithawi said.

There was no way to confirm his allegations.

In Diyala province, an estimated 4,000 U.S. and Iraqi soldiers continued yesterday in their search for insurgents in the Diyala River Valley, where six U.S. soldiers and their Iraqi translator were killed the day before when they stepped into a booby-trapped house packed with explosives.

Intelligence reports had estimated that 50 to 60 senior insurgent leaders were holed up northwest of the town of Muqdadiya, but by the time the offensive began, they had fled.

Soldiers in Operation Raider Harvest, the Diyala River Valley portion of the Operation Phantom Phoenix campaign, were clearing a village when a local Iraqi pointed out "an enemy compound," said Staff Sgt. Russell Bassett, a spokesman for the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division.

"He said it was a house that al-Qaida in Iraq was using," Bassett said in a phone interview. "The soldiers asked him if it was booby-trapped. He said no. They went in to clear the house and it exploded on them. It was rigged with crushed wire and multiple drums of homemade explosives."

The house, which had a for sale sign out front, was wired to ensure the structure collapsed, Bassett said. The bomb did not explode until the soldiers were well inside, he said.

Military intelligence officers said they did not know what ties the Iraqi might have had to al-Qaida - whether he was an innocent villager or an insurgent intentionally luring the soldiers into the house.

Since the assault in Diyala began, soldiers there have discovered eight improvised explosive devices, three car bombs and 11 weapons caches, and have detained 18 suspected insurgents, Bassett said.

The high-tempo operations around the country come as the U.S. military seeks to land a knockout blow to al-Qaida in Iraq ahead of an expected drawdown this summer of the additional 28,500 troops the White House ordered to Iraq last year in order to quell Iraq's civil war.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said that the bombing south of Baghdad and military operations in northern Iraq were part of an "important offensive" against militants in Iraq.

Ned Parker and Kimi Yoshino writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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