U.S. military launches new air campaign south of Baghdad, sees further links to Iran

By: KIM GAMEL - Associated Press

BAGHDAD -- The U.S. military has launched a new air campaign against militant safe havens and weapons smugglers south of Baghdad as it seeks to choke the flow of bombs and weapons reaching Baghdad, a top commander said Thursday.

Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, who leads the 3rd Infantry Division, also said he and other commanders feared insurgents would try to stage a massive attack ahead of a pivotal report due in mid-September to the U.S. Congress on political and military progress in Iraq.

"We've been fighting this enemy now for a while. He's the most vicious enemy we've ever seen. He has no respect for human life and what he's going to try to do is to do some catastrophic attack that's going to influence the debate back in Washington," Lynch told The Associated Press. "We've got to stop him from doing that by taking the fight to him all the time."

Lynch said he gave the order on Wednesday for the division's 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade to begin Operation Marne Husky, the latest in a series of offensives in the capital and surrounding areas.

The new operation is aimed at disrupting insurgents who fled a recent crackdown on the rural areas of Arab Jubour and Salman Pak in a predominantly Sunni area south of the capital.

Lynch also noted a "marked and increasing Iranian influence" in weapons and the training of Shiite extremists in restive areas south of Baghdad.

"There's three pots of bad guys in my battle space. One's the Sunni extremists, one's the Shia extremists and the other is marked and increasing Iranian influence," he said. "They're all anti-Iraq, they're all against the government of Iraq, they're all against the Iraqi people."

The U.S. military has consistently accused Iran of fueling the violence in Iraq by arming Shiite militias and providing sophisticated armor-piercing roadside bombs known as explosively formed projectiles, or EFPs, which have killed hundreds of American troops.

Lynch and other military officials also have said that Shiite-dominated Iran is providing support to some Sunni insurgents fighting American forces in Iraq, while cautioning that it was unclear whether the Iranians were supplying the weapons directly or whether the Sunnis were buying them on the black market.

Tehran has denied the allegations, and last week the two sides held a second round of ambassador-level talks in Baghdad on the security situation.

The general said his troops had found mounting evidence of Iranian involvement, and he planned to step up efforts to fight Shiite extremists in his area, which covers the southern rim of Baghdad and mostly Shiite areas to the south.

He said a U.S. drone had spotted about 50 Iranian-made rockets aimed at a forward operating base south of Baghdad a few weeks ago.

"We were able to disrupt that rocket attack, but they were all Iranian rockets. They were all clearly marked Iranian rockets," he said. "Every time we find a weapons cache there's a good chance that we're going find Iranian munitions in there."