BAGHDAD (AP) – In a well-publicized show of force, U.S. and Iraqi forces swept into the countryside north of the capital in 50 helicopters yesterday looking for insurgents in what the American military called its “largest air assault” in nearly three years.
There was no bombing or firing from the air in the offensive northeast of Samarra, a town 60 miles north of Baghdad, the U.S. military said. All 50 aircraft were helicopters – Black Hawks, Apaches and Chinooks – used to ferry in and provide cover for the 1,450 Iraqi and U.S. troops.
The military said the assault – Operation Swarmer – aimed to clear “a suspected insurgent operating area” and would continue over several days.
Residents in the area of the assault reported a heavy U.S. and Iraqi troop presence and said large explosions could be heard in the distance. American forces routinely blow up structures they suspect as insurgent safe-houses or weapons depots. It was not known if they met any resistance, but the military reported detaining 41 people.
The attack was launched as Iraq’s new parliament met briefly for the first time. Lawmakers took the oath but did no business and adjourned after just 40 minutes, unable to agree on a speaker, let alone a prime minister. The legislature set no date for it to meet again.
Still, the session marked a small step toward forming a unity government that the Bush administration hopes will calm the insurgency and enable it to begin withdrawing U.S. troops.
Operation Swarmer also came as the Bush administration was attempting to show critics at home and abroad that it is dealing effectively with Iraq’s insurgency and increasingly sectarian violence.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan denied it was tied to the new campaign to change war opinion. “This was a decision made by our commanders,” he said, adding that President Bush was briefed but did not specifically authorize the operation.
The U.S. military forces have been trying to build up the Iraqi army so that it can play a leading role in fighting the insurgents.
The operation appeared concentrated near four villages – Jillam, Mamlaha, Banat Hassan and Bukaddou – about 20 miles north of Samarra. The settlements are near the highway leading from Samarra to the city of Adwar, scene of repeated insurgent roadblocks and ambushes.