U.S. Planes Strike Al-Qaida Hideouts Near Baghdad

U.S. and Iraqi forces are in the midst of "Operation Phantom Phoenix," a wide-scale offensive aimed at eliminating pockets of al-Qaida north and south of Baghdad. The operation involves thousands of troops. U.S. warplanes are also involved. Earlier Thursday, they carried out a major bombing raid on one suspected al-Qaida hideout.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

In Iraq today, U.S. warplanes launched their biggest airstrike in at least a year. B-1 bombers and F-16 jets hit targets on Baghdad's southern outskirts - an area that's long been a haven for al-Qaida fighters. The attack is part of Operation Phantom Phoenix - a major countrywide offensive against al-Qaida that began this week.

NPR's Anne Garrels has this report from Baghdad.

ANNE GARRELS: In quick succession, the Air Force dropped 40,000 pounds of bombs near the contested town of Arab Jabour to clear a path for U.S. and Iraqi ground troops who were to follow. The airstrikes targeted an extensive series of underground bombs, which al-Qaida fighters had recently planted. Before the attack, a drone surveyed the dense palm groves along the Tigris River. An Air Force spokesman reached by phone said the bombing was delayed for 30 minutes until civilians spotted in the area had left. Civilians had been hit here in earlier attacks, causing a backlash.

NORRIS: The general's name is MARK Hertling.]

The movement of masses of troops is hardly phantom despite the operation's name. And delayed by weather on Sunday, the massing of troops have been hard to hide. Hertling acknowledged many militants have fled in advance - tipped off by troop movements or inside information.

GARRELS: I'm sure there's active leaking of communication.

GARRELS: As an indication of infiltration here, the military said today an al- Qaida leader responsible for weapons training, underground bombs and suicide bombings had numerous contacts within the Iraqi security forces to help him before he was recently caught.

Al-Qaida spies within the Iraqi forces are just one problem. General Hertling cited unsecured Iraqi army communications as another risk.

GARRELS: I was at a planning session for this with a group of about 20 Iraqi generals. The number of cell phones that went off in that meeting - I was, like, guys, we got to talk about the operation and you just don't do that in the American Army. But they don't have any secure communications.

GARRELS: Soldiers trudging through villages laced with canals said they were encountering much less fighting then they expected but they remained wary. Soldiers are handing out pamphlets urging residents to form concerned citizens groups to help defend their areas. So far, Hertling says these groups are weak in Diyala because Iraqi forces there are still weak and al-Qaida can intimidate the locals.

GARRELS: On Monday, the citizens of Diyala found five severed heads in their towns with Arabic writing in blood on the forehead that said, join the concerned citizens and you will end up like this.

GARRELS: Nine U.S. soldiers have been killed in the opening days of the operation. Six died in a booby trapped house. House bombs have long been a staple weapon for Sunni fighters who try to lure soldiers inside. General Hertling anticipates this will be a tough fight. And he gave no end date for the current operation, simply suggesting it could go on for at least several weeks.

Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.

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