BAGHDAD (AFP) – US warplanes rained bombs on a rural area just south of Baghdad on Thursday, with the American military saying Al-Qaeda in Iraq safe havens were destroyed in “one of the largest airstrikes” since 2003.
The blitz unleashed 47,500 pounds (21,500 kilograms) of explosives on Arab Jabour village just south of the capital, military officials said.
“The attack was one of the largest airstrikes since the start of the war” in 2003, said Major Alayne Conway, US military spokeswoman for Multi-National Division-Centre, which operates in areas south of Baghdad.
“We dropped as many bombs today as the United States Air Force would do in our region of operation in an average month,” she said.
The attack by B-1 bombers and F-16 fighter-bombers was part of a nationwide operation against Al-Qaeda codenamed Phantom Phoenix, launched by US and Iraqi forces on Tuesday.
“Thirty-eight bombs were dropped within the first 10 minutes,” a US military statement said. “More than 40 targets were hit after precision air strikes destroyed reported Al-Qaeda safe havens in Arab Jabour.”
The military gave no details of casualties in the Sunni-dominated farmland area of date palms and citrus groves.
“Two B-1 bombers and four F-16 fighter jets directed bombs at three large target areas. Each bomber made two passes and the F-16s followed to complete the set.”
The air raid was carried out as ground troops of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division closed in on the area, the statement said.
The air strike came on the third day of Operation Phantom Phoenix, which though countrywide is focused in particular on four provinces north of Baghdad — Diyala, Salaheddin, Tamim and Nineveh.
In a later statement, the US military said one militant had been killed and 18 suspected militants detained on Thursday “during operations targeting Al-Qaeda networks in central and northern Iraq.”
Those rounded up, it said, included militants suspected of involvement in facilitating car and roadside bombings, suicide attacks, kidnappings, executions and “foreign terrorist facilitation.”
Nine US soldiers were killed in the first two days of the assault, including six in an explosion as they entered a booby-trapped house in restive Diyala province on Wednesday.
US commanders say that Al-Qaeda and other insurgents have been largely pushed out of Baghdad and surrounding belts, mainly due to the “surge” of an extra 28,500 troops announced by Bush on January 10 last year, and that the fight must now be taken further afield.
The focus of an operation codenamed Iron Harvest, part of Phantom Phoenix, in Diyala province just north of Baghdad, is the “breadbasket” farmlands surrounding the town of Muqdadiyah where Al-Qaeda is deeply rooted, commanders say.
Major General Mark Hertling, commanding general of coalition forces in northern Iraq, said on Wednesday that “20 to 30” Al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters had been killed in Diyala during the first two days of Iron Harvest.
He acknowledged at a news conference in Baghdad that the militants were likely to simply move their operations elsewhere because of the latest assault, but said they would be pinned down eventually.
“Yeah, it’s true that they moved from Anbar (province) into my region,” he told reporters. “But we’re pursuing them. With the increase of the Iraqi army and police, there’s no place left for them, except maybe some palm groves.”
An upsurge of violence, which has seen more than 100 Iraqis killed since the start of the new year, continued on Thursday.
Twin blasts at morning rush hour in a crowded central Baghdad street killed two Iraqi soldiers and a policeman, also wounding 11 others, security officials said. The 11 people wounded were all soldiers and policemen.
At Al-Rashad, about 60 kilometres (35 miles) south of the northern oil city of Kirkuk, a roadside bomb killed two patrolling Iraqi soldiers and wounded an officer, police said.
In the northern city of Mosul, a civilian was killed when his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb.