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U.S. Boosts Its Use of Airstrikes In Iraq

Editor's Note: This video contains no soundOn Nov. 7, 2007, an MQ-1B Predator assigned to the 46 Expeditionary Rescue Squadron destroys enemy combatants who fired mortar rounds against Coalition forces in Balad, Iraq. The enemy mortar team was destroyed with an AGM-114P (Hellfire missile). The Joint Terminal Attack Controller confirmed the strike successful. Video by U.S. Air Force

Senior Air Force officials said the greater use of airstrikes stems from better intelligence that provides a clearer picture of the battlefield. Commanders said the additional U.S. forces in Iraq over the past year have pushed insurgents out of urban areas and into places that are easier to target.

"You see an increase in the number of kinetic strikes because we have found the enemy, we are finding the enemy's emplacement sites, manufacturing facilities for IEDs and caches of weapons," said Air Force Lt. Gen. Gary L. North, the U.S. Central Air Forces and Combined Forces Air Component commander. "And we're striking them."

The Marine Corps keeps its own statistics for airstrikes in western Iraq but could not provide 2007 data.

In Afghanistan, where U.S. and NATO bombings picked up in the middle of 2006, coalition airstrikes reached 3,572 last year, more than double the total for 2006 and more than 20 times the number in 2005. Many of the strikes have targeted the Taliban and other extremists in Helmand province, and military officials said they have been able to use air power to support small Special Forces units that engage the enemy in remote locations.

Human rights groups estimate that Afghan civilian casualties caused by airstrikes tripled to more than 300 in 2007, fueling fears that such aggressive bombardment could be catastrophic for the innocent.

Marc Garlasco, a military analyst at Human Rights Watch who tracks airstrikes in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the strikes carry unique risks. "My major concern with what's going on in Iraq is massive population density," he said. "You have the potential for very high civilian casualties, so you need really granular intelligence on what you're going to hit. But I don't think they're being careless."

In preparation for last week's major airstrikes near Baghdad, North said, he met two weeks ago with Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division and U.S. forces in Baghdad, to walk through the plans.

"What you're seeing in the last few days is a very deliberate process honed by intelligence, targeted and aligned to get the desired effect in a particular area," North said.

Commanders also said they are using air power more creatively, in some cases dropping bombs that explode in the air to detonate insurgent roadside bombs. Other U.S. munitions have cut off small bridges or roads to isolate insurgent movement. As seen in Air Force videos, some attacks have been extremely precise, such as when a Predator unmanned aircraft fired an AGM-114P Hellfire missile to kill three extremists who were setting up a mortar attack on Nov. 7 in Balad.

North said the Air Force has used concrete-filled bombs to detonate IED sites and is using 250-pound GBU-39 small-diameter bombs to make blasts safer for civilians. Commanders also have been using airstrikes on houses suspected to be rigged with explosives, called "house-borne IEDs."

Such a strike occurred Jan. 6, when soldiers with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Cavalry Regiment, 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team spotted five suspected insurgents with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 rifles apparently rigging a house with explosives near Khan Bani Saad, northeast of Baghdad. Lt. Col. Stuart Pettis, air liaison officer for Multinational Division North, said the unit asked for airstrikes.

"After doing a show of force to get civilians out of the area, they engaged the house and the fighters with a 500-pound bomb," he said of the attack by two British Tornado GR4 jets. "They took the fighters out."

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