BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.S. forces on Thursday stepped up a bold yet risky new offensive to stamp out the Iraqi insurgency.
Shelling began at dusk—sending shock waves through the capital—as American soldiers fired at least eight mortar shells into a clothes-dyeing factory that had been attacked the night before.
At 7 p.m., 1st Armored Division soldiers fired mortar and artillery shells at two more sites in Baghdad that officials suspected had been used to launch rockets and mortars at coalition compounds, said Capt. Dave Gercken, a spokesman for the 1st Armored Division.
The attacks—part of operation "Iron Hammer"—mark an aggressive new attempt by coalition forces to beat back an insurgency that has caused 156 U.S. combat deaths since May 1, when President Bush declared major combat operations over. U.S. forces have recently been subject to about 35 attacks daily throughout Iraq, and insurgents have launched a series of deadly suicide attacks aimed at undermining the U.S. effort and driving foreigners from the country.
The U.S. counterattack, however, risks alienating Iraqis should civilians be caught in the crossfire.
In a separate attack Thursday night, an AC-130U "Spooky" gunship used 105 mm cannons and 40 mm machine guns to destroy a former Republican Guard building in Baghdad's al Farat neighborhood. Dozens of distant explosions could be heard around 9:30 p.m.
Gercken said insurgents had used the building to attack the 1st Armored Division.
Brig. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the commander of the 1st Armored Division, said the operations were based on an analysis of recent patterns of enemy activity and were designed with enough precision to minimize civilian casualties. "Throughout this operation we are communicating with the Iraqi people to let them know that these combat operations are being executed on their behalf," Dempsey said in a statement.
Earlier in the day, coalition officials moved to secure Baghdad by closing the 14th of July Bridge.
Operation "Iron Hammer" began Wednesday night after 1st Armored Division soldiers saw mortar rounds being fired from a van in the gritty town of Abu Ghraib, about 15 miles west of Baghdad. An Apache helicopter gunship followed the van out of town and attacked it, killing two suspected guerrillas and injuring three others. Five other suspected insurgents were captured, along with an 82 mm mortar tube, said Lt. Col. George Krivo, a coalition military spokesman.
About a half-hour later, Bradley armored vehicles from the 2nd Armored Calvary Regiment and an AC-130 "Spectre" gunship destroyed the "Al Jazeera Clothes Dyeing Company" in the southern Baghdad suburb of Sadia. Krivo said intelligence indicated that insurgents were storing mortar rounds and other munitions there. A Defense Department statement issued in Washington said the warehouse was a "known meeting, planning, storage and rendezvous point for belligerent elements currently conducting attacks on coalition forces and infrastructure."
In a third strike, soldiers with the 1st Armored Division fired 155 mm howitzer shells at a "terrorist mortar team" that had lobbed several rounds in the direction of the Green Zone, as the main coalition compound in Baghdad is known.
Charles Heatly, a coalition spokesman, said the bridge—which had just reopened two weeks ago at the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, months after U.S. forces closed it for security reasons—had been closed again because of recent mortar and rocket attacks on the main American-led coalition compound.
"The bridge will not stay closed for long," he said.
Some fear moves against the insurgency may inadvertently hit civilian targets and turn more of the population against the coalition.
"It will bring chaos," said Hazim al Jumaily, a member of the security committee for the Fallujah Tribal Council. "Chaos."
Some senior coalition officials are expressing reservations over the new strategy, agreeing that it could cause the insurgency to spiral out of control.
"The message is we're coming," said one senior official, who asked not to be named. "In the next few weeks, we're going to test the waters."
On Thursday, dozens of relatives and neighbors held a funeral for four men and a boy whom American troops killed Tuesday night in Fallujah.
The military said the five were part of a group that paratroopers with the 82nd Airborne Division foiled in an attempt to attack the Jordanian Hospital in Fallujah and a nearby U.S. military camp.
But at the funeral, Khalid Khalifa al Munwar, a 65-year-old chicken farmer, said the soldiers killed his three sons and two grandsons after they apparently failed to stop their truck, which was loaded with chickens.
The truck sat a few blocks away from the funeral tent, riddled with more than 200 bullets, the cab splattered with blood and brains.
The youngest victim, Khalid Majed Khalid, was 8.
"My sons are dead. My grandsons are dead. Where is the freedom?" al Munwar said, his voice filled with rage. "I want God to punish the Americans. God will punish them and give us revenge."
The military began responding more aggressively before dawn last Saturday, using tanks and aircraft to level several buildings in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit that commanders said guerrillas were using to stage attacks. Also on Saturday, warplanes dropped 500-pound bombs outside Fallujah. Missiles were fired at a suspected guerrilla hideout Monday near Latifiyah.
The attacks have caused relatively little damage. In some cases, residents were warned to leave. The bombs dropped near Fallujah landed about a half-mile outside town, in a sparsely populated area near the town dump.
An elderly farmer living a few hundred yards from the impact zone said his family was terrified and confused by the strike. He didn't want to give his name because he was afraid.
"We don't why they bombed us. We don't know what it was," he said. "The children found shrapnel everywhere today."
Shortly after he spoke, three U.S. fighting vehicles roared across the field a few feet from his home.
(Wilkinson reported from Fallujah.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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