BAGRAM, Afghanistan (AP) – As the war began in Iraq, U.S. soldiers mounted one of the biggest searches in a year for Taliban and al-Qaida fugitives in Afghanistan.

The military said the timing was coincidental, adding that it was acting on new intelligence from radio intercepts. Anti-U.S. groups had threatened to intensify attacks on the multinational coalition in Afghanistan if war breaks out in Iraq.

Operation “Valiant Strike” began at 6 a.m. yesterday (8:30 p.m. EST Wednesday) and involved nearly 1,000 U.S. troops and their Afghan allies invading the south by foot and by helicopter.

Military spokesman Col. Roger King said the raids focused on areas east of Kandahar, the former spiritual headquarters of the Taliban, which is allied with al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network. He declined to say whether bin Laden was the target of the hunt.

Khalid Pashtun, a spokesman for the Kandahar provincial government, said the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, has tribal links in the area.

“Operations in Afghanistan are conducted completely independent of any operations in other sectors,” King told reporters at Bagram Air Base. “We have done a series of major operations – this is one more in a continuing series.

In Washington, officials dismissed suggestions the offensive, coming so soon after the start of the war in Iraq, was intended to show the war against Saddam Hussein was not taking away attention from the war on terror.

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