BAGHDAD — The U.S. military dropped 40,000 pounds of explosives southeast of Baghdad on Thursday in a series of airstrikes that underscored the tenuousness of U.S. progress against Islamic extremists in Iraq.
The targets were near the town of Arab Jabour, a Sunni Muslim-dominated district on Baghdad's outskirts that American officials recently held up as a security success and an example of how local Sunni tribesmen known as "concerned local citizens" had turned against al Qaida in Iraq.
But Thursday's air attack indicated that the area still has a considerable Sunni militant presence. The statement said that more than 40 targets in three large areas were hit during two passes by two supersonic B-1 bombers and four F-16 fighter jets. A U.S. military official in the area said the targets were al Qaida in Iraq weapons caches and bomb-making materials.
The blitz dropped 38 bombs in its first 10 minutes, the statement said.
The air attack was part of a nationwide offensive launched this week with Iraqi forces called Operation Phantom Phoenix. Most of that operation has been north of Baghdad, where 74,000 Iraqi and coalition forces are trying to clear pockets of Islamic fundamentalists in Diyala, Salah ad Din and two other Iraqi provinces.
In Washington, U.S. officials said the need for such an operation had been expected as the increased presence of U.S. troops in the capital and its outskirts squeezed Islamic militants to outlying provinces. They noted that some U.S. units that had been moved to Baghdad as part of the so-called surge of additional U.S. troops to Iraq had been repositioned to take part in the Phantom Phoenix operation.
"After these places, there's not much else, not many places they can go," Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said during a joint news conference with Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul Qadir Mohammed Jassim.
The renewed fighting has triggered a jump in U.S. military casualties, which in December had fallen to their lowest levels since February 2004. Already 17 U.S. troops have died in the first 10 days of January — 15 from hostile fire. In December, only 14 of the 23 American troops who died in Iraq were killed by hostile fire, according to iCasualties.org, a Web site that tracks U.S. casualties.
Gates said there could be still higher casualties during the offensive.
"This job is not finished. There is more to do. But I think that there is the sense that this is an important offensive, and because we are on the offensive again in areas where we have not been active for some time, it's not a surprise that we will see some higher casualties until that area's cleared." he said.
Thursday's action included the capture of 91 suspected insurgents and 4,500 pounds of explosives in Iskanderiyah, a town south of Arab Jabour, according to Iraqi Army Brig. Gen. Abdulameer Kamil. Four more insurgents were killed and three injured after attacking a U.S. military vehicle near Muqdadiyah, a city in Diyala.
Operation Phantom Phoenix was launched after car bombings and suicide attacks began to rise in the northern provinces and some Baghdad neighborhoods after months of declines.
Arab Jabour, a rural Sunni-dominated town on Baghdad's outskirts, was once an al Qaida stronghold where insurgents roamed openly.
But as part of the surge, Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, sent 1,200 U.S. soldiers to the region and employed roughly 1,000 residents as concerned local citizen security guards. Violence fell, from 45 attacks a week to an average of four.
In a November speech, President Bush hailed the progress, talking about a butcher from Arab Jabour reopening his shop.
"Slowly but surely the people of Iraq are reclaiming a normal society. You see, when Iraqis don't have to fear the terrorists, they have a chance to build better lives for themselves," Bush said.
On Thursday, a U.S. military official said the bombings struck the southern outskirts of the town, saying the northern area remains safe. The distance between the two areas is a few kilometers.
The official, who couldn't be named because he's not authorized to speak to the media, said that reporters who had recently visited Arab Jabour with U.S. officials had been shown only the safe northern area. "Farther south, near the river, is still an area where there would be insurgent activity," he said. "What you saw is the ideal."
(Gumbrecht, of the Lexington Herald-Leader, reported from Baghdad, Youssef from Washington. Special correspondent Ali Basri contributed from Basra.)