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Iraq Transition

U.S., Iraqi forces launch anti-insurgent campaign

More bodies found in Baghdad; parliament meets, briefly

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U.S. forces prepare for deployment near Salaheddin province.

OPERATION SWARMER

Target: Insurgents operating northeast of Samarra
Forces: 1,500 Iraqi and coalition troops, 200-plus tactical vehicles, 50-plus aircraft
Outlook: Operation expected to continue for days, with thorough searches planned
Results: Weapons caches already found, including stocks of artillery shells, explosives and bomb-making materials, as well as military uniforms

Source: U.S. Department of Defense

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Helicopter-borne U.S. and Iraqi troops fanned out into the countryside around the northern city of Samarra on Thursday in a new anti-insurgent assault, the U.S. military said.

The operation was launched as Iraq's parliament met briefly for the first time and the death toll from apparent reprisal killings in Baghdad rose.

About 1,500 U.S. and Iraqi troops were taking part in "Operation Swarmer," which began at dawn Thursday, said Maj. Tom Bryant, a spokesman for the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division.

Those troops detained more than 30 people and found five caches of weapons on the operation's first day, but no significant firefights had resulted. (Watch as choppers ferry troops to the insurgent area -- 2:28)

"We have no reports of any Iraqi army or coalition injuries at all," Bryant said. "So far, the mission has been a great success."

Samarra, about 75 miles (121 kilometers) north of Baghdad, was the scene of the bombing February 22 of a revered Shiite Muslim shrine that triggered a surge in sectarian violence and brought the country to the brink of civil war.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari called the targeted area "a hotbed for insurgents and terrorists."

Troops are attempting to cordon off a 10-mile-by-10-mile zone outside Samarra to hunt for suspected insurgents, Bryant said.

Villagers told CNN the area was home to a tribe believed to be sympathetic to insurgents, and periodic explosions could be heard into Thursday night.

More than 50 helicopters and 200 tactical ground vehicles were involved in the operation, the U.S. command in Baghdad said in a statement. Bryant said Iraqi troops slightly outnumber the U.S. forces taking part.

"The Iraqi forces, their [intelligence], their tips, are really what drove the operation," he said.

Zebari said the operation shows the "rising capabilities" of Iraqi forces, whose performance, President Bush has said, is the key to reducing U.S. troop levels in the nearly three-year-old conflict.

"This is a good exercise and indicates that this strategy is working to build Iraqi troops to be sufficient," Zebari said. (Watch Zebari describe the operation -- 3:49)

The operation is larger than the anti-insurgent campaigns U.S. troops led in towns along the Euphrates River last year, but considerably smaller than the September 2004 operation to retake Samarra from insurgents.

Another sweep through the Samarra area this month turned up "substantial enemy weapons and equipment caches," a military statement said.

Zebari said the area has been a transit point for insurgents looking to carry out attacks and "create another Falluja," referring to an insurgent command center in that western Iraqi city that was scene of a bloody offensive in 2004.

The current offensive is focused on three villages where fighters are believed to be based, according to Iraqi security sources. The targeted region is largely Sunni Arab, but has some mixed Sunni-Shiite areas.

The suspected insurgents being targeted are believed to be responsible for lootings and killings, including the deaths of three Al-Arabiya television journalists killed in Samarra when they were reporting on the shrine bombing.

Unlike many previous operations, including the 2004 campaign to recapture Falluja, no Western journalists accompanied the troops.

Growing pessimism

The operation came as a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed increasing pessimism about the war in the United States, with the number of people who believe a U.S. victory in Iraq is "likely" falling 40 percentage points over three years. (Full story)

In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan rejected suggestions that the timing of the operation was linked to efforts to turn around public opinion.

"This is a decision that is made by commanders," he said, adding that Bush was briefed on the operation but did not directly authorize it.

Also Thursday, the White House reaffirmed the principle of pre-emptive war in its updated National Security Strategy, despite the fact that no weapons of mass destruction, which were a key justification for the pre-emptive 2003 invasion of Iraq, were found. (Full story)

Bodies found in Baghdad

The death toll from apparent reprisal killings in Baghdad rose as Iraqi emergency police said they had found 31 new bodies across the capital -- 25 on Wednesday and another six Thursday.

Since a string of car bombings in a poor Shiite neighborhood killed at least 46 people Sunday, police have reported finding the results of grisly execution-style slayings daily.

More than 160 bodies have been recovered since Sunday. Many were shot to death, and some showed signs of torture.

In northern Iraq, one person was killed and three others injured in demonstrations marking the 18th anniversary of the gassing to death of thousands of Kurds in Halabja by Saddam Hussein's forces, police and hospital officials said.

Diyala province, north of Baghdad, continued to be a hotbed of violence.

In Khalis, a roadside bomb killed three girls and wounded five boys Thursday as students were leaving school, an official with the coalition press center in Diyala said.

A roadside bomb exploded near an Iraqi police patrol in Muqtadya, wounding seven officers and one civilian, the official said.

In the provincial capital of Baquba, a gunman killed one civilian and wounded another.

Parliament meets briefly

Iraq's newly elected parliament met for the first time Thursday and adjourned after 30 minutes.

The lawmakers were sworn in amid tight security, but they did little else. (Full story)

The meeting begins the 60-day countdown during which time a president, two vice presidents and a prime minister will be selected.

The process likely will be difficult. The nominee for prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, is opposed by many Sunni, Kurdish and secular Shiite lawmakers, and their constituents, who are unhappy with his performance as transitional prime minister.

Other developments

  • The U.S. military has opened an investigation into the deaths last year of 15 Iraqi civilians in the western city of Haditha, several military sources told CNN. (Full story)
  • An Iranian official said Thursday that his country is willing to hold talks with the United States -- which has accused Iran of trying to influence violence in Iraq -- the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported. (Full story)
  • The death of a 24-year-old male detainee at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison is being investigated. The prisoner died of apparent natural causes Wednesday, a U.S. military statement said. He was found unconscious, and CPR efforts failed, the military said.
  • CNN's Arwa Damon, Nic Robertson and Barbara Starr, and journalist Shirzad Bozorgmehr contributed to this report.

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