Operation Swarmer strikes at insurgents

U.S., Iraqi forces in largest airborne assault since war began


WASHINGTON -- U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a major helicopter and armored operation north of Baghdad yesterday, targeting insurgent forces and weapons caches, in what Pentagon officials described as the largest air assault since the war began three years ago.

About 1,500 soldiers, including elements of the U.S. 101st Air Assault Division and the Iraqi army's 4th Division, swept into an area northeast of Samarra, the city where the bombing of a Shiite shrine last month unleashed a wave of sectarian violence. The operation that began yesterday included 50 helicopters and 200 armored vehicles and could last several days.

One senior Pentagon official, who requested anonymity, said the assault, dubbed Operation Swarmer, was spurred by Iraqi intelligence reports hinting at the possible presence of insurgent leaders, as well as weapons caches and a coordination center for the insurgency. "You wouldn't do something like that unless you had good intelligence," the official said.

Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the region, told reporters at the Pentagon that the operation was aimed at al-Qaida in Iraq and other insurgent cells, although there was "no specific high-value target that I know of."

"I wouldn't characterize this as being anything that's a big departure from normal or from the need to prosecute a target that we think was lucrative enough to commit this much force to go get," he said.

U.S. officials in Iraq and at the Pentagon said about 40 arrests were made, and weapons caches were captured, containing artillery shells, explosives and materials for making roadside bombs, along with military uniforms. Officials said the U.S. and Iraqi forces would likely cordon off villages as part of the assault.

Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi interim foreign minister, said the attack had been necessary to prevent insurgents from forming a new stronghold such as the one they established in Fallujah, west of Baghdad. "After Fallujah and some of the operations carried out successfully in the Euphrates and Syrian border, many of the insurgents moved to areas nearer to Baghdad," Zebari said on CNN. "They have to be pulled out by the roots."

Statements from U.S. officials stressed that Iraqi forces were in the lead and the U.S. was in a supporting role, though Pentagon officials privately said that the 101st was in charge of the operation. One American official who recently returned from Iraq said that the Iraqi army's 4th Division is "better than most" of the Iraqi units.

The assault comes as American military leaders have said that the sectarian killings in the country, most of them involving Shiite militias attacking Sunnis, were more of a concern than the insurgency. Days of violence after the Feb. 22 explosion at the Golden Mosque in Samarra left hundreds of dead around the country and led to attacks on about 30 mosques.

Yesterday's military operation was launched hours before Iraq's new Parliament was sworn in, with ethnic and religious parties deadlocked over formation of a new government.

Adnan Pachachi, the senior politician who administered the oath to Iraqi legislators in the absence of a speaker, spoke of a country in crisis.

"We have to prove to the world that a civil war is not [taking], and will not take, place among our people," Pachachi told lawmakers. "The danger is still looming, and the enemies are ready for us, because they do not like to see a united, strong, stable Iraq."

As Pachachi spoke, he was interrupted from the floor by Shiite leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who said the remarks were inappropriate because of their political nature.

Hours after the session adjourned, two mortar shells were fired into the Green Zone, Interior Ministry official Lt. Col. Falah al-Mohammedawi said. No casualties were reported.

With the start of Parliament, Iraqi leaders face a tight formal deadline to establish a government. The new constitution says the Parliament must appoint the Iraqi president by a two-thirds vote within 30 days of its first sitting. No more than 15 days later, the president is supposed to assign the prime minister nominee, chosen by the largest bloc, to appoint a Cabinet. The nominee then has 30 days to do that. The executive branch has to be approved by a majority vote of Parliament.

The reality is that Iraqi leaders have missed deadlines throughout the political process. Yesterday, the more optimistic politicians said they expected the government to be formed within a month. But many others said the talks could drag on until the summer. The American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been urging quick resolution of the most contentious issues and has led several meetings.

The American and Iraqi military assault, meanwhile, brought criticism from some quarters.

Rep. Steve Israel, a New York Democrat and a member of the Armed Services Committee, said the operation casts "serious doubts" on U.S. policies in Iraq and said it was "another version of Whack-A-Mole."

Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel and defense analyst, described the latest operation as "completely irrelevant" because of what he said was the Pentagon's failure to craft a proper strategy to defeat the insurgency.

The American military, Macgregor said, should have followed the counterinsurgency lessons learned from El Salvador in the 1980s, by using small numbers of American special operations soldiers working with the Iraqi military to pacify the country. Instead, the Americans disbanded the 400,000-soldier Iraqi Army, he said, and delayed local rule.

Meanwhile, the military has begun an investigation into whether U.S. Marines committed a crime when they shot and killed 15 civilians during a firefight after insurgents attacked their convoy in November in Haditha, Iraq, a U.S. military official in Baghdad said yesterday.


Wire services contributed to this article.

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