BAGHDAD, Iraq — American troops and Iraqi special forces launched a major operation in Falluja late Thursday aimed at disrupting future attacks by insurgents who control the volatile city, the U.S. military said.
U.S. warplanes pounded targets in the Sunni Triangle city that has been a hotbed for the insurgency for months, lighting the night sky and producing plumes of smoke.
The operation, on the eve of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, marked the first time U.S. forces have gone into Falluja since April, when a tenuous cease-fire was reached to try to restore calm.
Since then, U.S. forces have operated in the region but not the city itself, and the insurgency has gotten bolder around Iraq.
“We’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” said 1st Lt. Lyle Gilbert, a spokesman for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
“This operation is going to set the stage for Fallujans and for the Iraqi people to go out and elect their government and live in freedom and security as they deserve,” Gilbert said.
Two infantry battalions — one from the Marines and one from the Army — were participating “in and near the city” along with Iraqi special forces, he said. Marine attack jets and helicopters were providing close air support and troop transport.
The operation began with “precision air strikes” on targets around the city, enabling the ground forces to begin their move, according to a Marine news release.
Hours earlier, Iraqi national security adviser Kasim Dawood said the government was preparing to “smash” the entrenched insurgency in Falluja if city officials failed to turn in militants.
The government had been trying to get Falluja leaders to hand over terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his allies.
Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi issued an ultimatum Wednesday urging Fallujans to hand over the Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi and other foreign militants or face a military offensive.
Al-Zarqawi is one of the most wanted terrorists in Iraq. The Unification and Jihad group, which claims allegiance to him, has been blamed for numerous car bombings, killings of civilians and beheadings of hostages. It claimed responsibility Wednesday for the beheadings of two Iraqi intelligence officers.
The Marine news release said several illegal checkpoints and a weapons cache used by al-Zarqawi’s terror network in Falluja have been destroyed so far in the operation. The checkpoints were used by insurgents to detain, interrogate, harass and kidnap Iraqi civilians, it said.