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Ambitious U.S.-Iraqi Air Assault Targets Insurgents

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Today the head of U.S. Central Command said he expects to continue to reduce U.S. troop levels in Iraq. As General John Abizaid spoke to reporters in Washington, the U.S. Army was launching what they called the largest air assault in Iraq since the initial invasion three years ago. More than 50 Apache attack helicopters, Black Hawks and Chinooks and a dozen Air Force planes joined 1,500 troops on the ground north of Baghdad. NPR Pentagon correspondent John Hendren has our story.

JOHN HENDREN reporting:

Preparations for today's assault on a rural desert region near Samarra began in February, with intelligence leads gathered by Iraqis and fleshed out by Americans. Major Tom Bryant, a spokesman for the 101st Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade in nearby Tikrit, says the informants said as many as 100 insurgents, at least some of them foreign fighters, were operating in the region.

Major TOM BRYANT (Spokesman, 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division): About a month ago, we started receiving intelligence from our Iraqi partners, reports that indicated a number of insurgents operating in this area northeast of Samarra, a very isolated, rural area, a lot of farms, a couple of small villages, but kind of a no man's land. Between our commander, brigade commander, the division commander, the Iraqi commanders, all kind of determined that today was the right time and the objective area was the right place to go after these guys and deny them a place of safe haven.

HENDREN: The attack was launched with American aircraft, but Bryant says Iraqi army troops and police commandos led the assault on the ground, outnumbering the Americans. By nightfall, troops had arrested 41 people and carted off what they described as an insurgent arsenal.

Major BRYANT: We had five cachets that included artillery rounds, mortar rounds, other explosives that are used in making IADs, some initiation devices, manuals, instruction manuals, medical supplies, and military uniforms.

HENDREN: Uniforms defense officials say could be used to allow insurgents to act as spies within the Iraqi armed forces. Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi interim foreign minister, says the region has been a hotbed for insurgents.

Mr. HOSHYAR ZEBARI (Iraqi interim foreign minister): They should be on the run most of the time or rooted out. Otherwise, the moment they get confidence to establish themselves they will establish another Fallujah.

HENDREN: Colonel Joe Curtin, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, says as the Army's only air assault division, the 101st is uniquely positioned for air operations like this one.

Colonel JOE CURTIN (Spokesman, Pentagon): The division has almost 300 helicopters, cargo, attack and reconnaissance-type aircraft, so it is an extremely capable division that can provide the necessary speed and shock effect that you would need in a large-scale combat operation.

HENDREN: And if that weren't enough, says Air Force spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Frank Smolinski, at the Regional Air Command headquarters nearby, more than a dozen Air Force planes joined the fray.

Lieutenant Colonel FRANK SMOLINSKI (Spokesman, Air Force): Since early this morning we have provided more than 13 dedicated close air support sorties, to include intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and multiple tankers, to support the ongoing Army effort.

HENDREN: Military officials say the size of the operation is not unusual. The Baghdad-based 4th Infantry Division does them all the time. What's unusual is the massive attack from the air. It's not yet clear how long the operation will last, but officials say it could be as long as a week.

John Hendren, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Hendren
John Hendren began covering the Pentagon for NPR in November 2005. His reports can be heard throughout NPR News programming and newscasts.