By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 24, 2005
U.S. airstrikes in Iraq have surged this fall, jumping to nearly five times the average monthly rate earlier in the year, according to U.S. military figures.
Until the end of August, U.S. warplanes were conducting about 25 strikes a month. The number rose to 62 in September, then to 122 in October and 120 in November.
Several U.S. officers involved in operations in Iraq attributed much of the increase to a series of ground offensives in western Anbar province. Those offensives, conducted by U.S. Marines and Iraqi forces, were aimed at clearing foreign fighters and other insurgents from the Euphrates River Valley and establishing Iraqi control over the Syrian border area.
But Air Force Maj. Gen. Allen G. Peck, deputy commander of the U.S. air operations center in the region, said the higher strike numbers also reflected more aggressive military operations in other parts of Iraq that were undertaken to improve security for last week's national elections.
"I'm hard-pressed to provide a single definitive explanation for the increase," Peck said in a telephone interview.
For most airstrikes in Iraq, U.S. crews have been employing 500-pound, precision-guided bombs rather than the 1,000- or 2,000-pound versions used in past conflicts, Peck said. The smaller bombs are intended to reduce the potential for collateral damage.
In limited cases, the 100-pound Hellfire missile is used. "It won't knock down a house, but it can be effective in taking out a car," Peck said.
With the Pentagon preparing to reduce the level of U.S. ground forces in Iraq next year, some defense experts have speculated that U.S. airpower will be used more intensively to support operations by Iraq's fledgling security forces and protect U.S. advisers embedded with them. Indeed, American commanders have said that U.S. air forces in the region will not be drawn down as quickly as ground forces.