US warplanes launched their biggest air strike in Iraq since at
least 2006, bombarding date palm groves on Baghdad's southern
outskirts with more than 40,000 pounds of bombs in a matter of
Two B-1 bombers and four F-16 fighter jets struck more than 40 al Qaeda targets in three zones of Arab Jabour, a lush district just south of the capital that has become a haven for fighters driven out of other areas.
The attack formed part of Operation Phantom Phoenix, a major countrywide offensive against al Qaeda guerrillas that US forces announced this week.
"Thirty-eight bombs were dropped within the first 10 minutes, with a total tonnage of 40,000 pounds," the military said in a statement.
"Each bomber passed over twice and the F-16s followed to
complete the set."
US forces spokesman Major Winfield Danielson said it was the biggest air strike in Iraq since at least 2006.
A spokeswoman for US forces in central Iraq, Major Allayne
Conway, said it was too soon to assess the damage inflicted.
"We certainly have our opponents on the ropes and we're going to go after him while he is on the ropes," said Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Wilson, deputy commander of the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, in a statement.
Large-scale air strikes have been rare in Iraq, especially over the past few months when the intensity of military action tapered off as overall violence declined and US commanders emphasised "hearts and minds" engagement with civilians.
In televised remarks to security officials, Iraq's prime minister Nuri al-Maliki said: "The sectarian violence has ended and we are now aiming to complete the national reconciliation process with the whole spectrum of the Iraqi people."
But the operation launched this week shows a renewed determination by US forces to use traditional combat power against a stubborn al Qaeda enemy that has not lost its ability to launch attacks despite being driven from most areas.
Toll on US soldiers
The offensive has taken its toll on American forces as well.
After a month in which the rate of US-led coalition deaths fell
to fewer than one per day for the first time since 2004, nine
American soldiers were killed in 48 hours.
Six American soldiers were killed on Wednesday by an explosion in a booby-trapped house in Diyala province, and three others were killed on Tuesday in Salahuddin province, two of the northern areas where US forces say al Qaeda has regrouped.
Operation Phantom Phoenix has so far included a large-scale sweep in Diyala by thousands of US and Iraqi troops, and smaller operations across the north and Baghdad's outskirts.
The US military says al Qaeda Sunni Arab militants have been driven out of most of the territory they once held in Iraq, especially the west of the country and parts of Baghdad, and overall violence declined dramatically in the second half of 2007.
But militants have regrouped in three provinces north of Baghdad and in palm groves on the capital's southern outskirts.
They have stepped up so-called spectacular attacks - suicide bombings which often kill large numbers of people - launching major strikes nearly every day of the past two weeks mainly against neighbourhood patrols paid by US forces.
The war has forced more than three million people to leave their homes.
Some have started to return, but the International Organisation
for Migration said in a report that those who have gone home so far
represent only a "minute percentage".
"Despite decreased violence, slowing displacement rates and limited returns in 2007, population displacement within and from Iraq remains one of the largest and most serious humanitarian crises in the world," the IOM report said.
The United Nations' World Health Organisation released figures on Wednesday estimating about 151,000 Iraqi civilians had died violently in Iraq in the war's first three years, with the exact figure falling between 104,000 and 223,000.
The WHO figure, based on a survey of 10,000 Iraqi households, does not include deaths after June 2006.
The 12 months that followed were the deadliest year of the war.