March 16, 2006 — -- It's being called the largest air assault by American forces in Iraq since the initial invasion almost three years ago, and it's being aimed at insurgents near the same city where a mosque bombing set off sectarian violence that has brought the country to the brink of civil war.
More than 1,500 American and Iraqi troops have converged near the city of Samarra in the air and ground offensive dubbed "Operation Swarmer."
Residents say the operation appears to be concentrated near four villages north of Samarra. "Unknown gunmen exist in this area, killing and kidnapping policemen, soldiers and civilians," said Waqas al-Juwanya, a spokesman for Iraq's joint coordination center in nearby Dowr.
Samarra, about 60 miles north of Baghdad, is where insurgents bombed the Al Askari mosque in February. Military officials say insurgents have increased their activity in the area, which is a key city in the so-called Sunni Triangle.
In an official statement, the 101st Airborne Division said that more than 1,500 Iraqi and coalition troops, more than 200 tactical vehicles, and more than 50 aircraft were participating in the operation. The assault is expected to continue for several days as a thorough search of the area is conducted.
A Pentagon official said that at least 800 of the troops involved were Iraqi and at least 650 were Americans. Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said the offensive showed that Iraqi forces, some facing accusations of cooperating with the insurgents, were increasingly capable of securing the country.
U.S. military officials also were quick to point out that Iraqi intelligence had led to the action. The area has no significant coalition presence.
The operation kicked off just hours after Iraq's parliament held its first meeting since elections in December. The session lasted more than 30 minutes and was adjourned indefinitely because the legislature still has no speaker. Elected leaders have 60 days to elect a president, and approve a prime minister and cabinet.
The assault also comes just three days before the three-year anniversary of the start of the Iraq war. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that President Bush had no prior knowledge of the operation, and that it was not an assault the president needed to authorize.