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U.S. Air Power Strikes Iraq Targets Daily
Associated Press  |  December 20, 2005
WASHINGTON - The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps have flown thousands of missions in support of U.S. ground troops in Iraq this fall with little attention back home, including attacks by unmanned Predator aircraft armed with Hellfire missiles, military records show.

News reports and the public have focused mainly on ground action by the Army and Marines, but a variety of U.S. aircraft are striking targets in Iraq daily. They include frontline Air Force and Navy fighters as well as Marine Corps attack planes. American and allied refueling, transport and surveillance planes also are flying.

The airstrikes have been largely in areas of western Iraq and other places where the insurgency is strongest, such as Balad, Ramadi and in the vicinity of Baghdad, according to the U.S. military's Central Command, which is responsible for military operations in Iraq. For example, it said that on Iraq's election day, Dec. 15, an Air Force F-16 fighter fired a precision-guided munition at an access road used by insurgents near Baghdad.

The number of U.S. airstrikes increased in the weeks leading up to last Thursday's election, from a monthly average of about 35 last summer to more than 60 in September and 120 or more in October and November. The monthly number of air missions, including refueling and other support flights, grew from 1,111 in September to 1,492 in November, according to figures provided by Central Command Air Force's public affairs office.

Those figures pale in comparison to the aerial onslaught that was unleashed at the start of the war in March 2003, when B-2, B-1 and B-52 bombers were part of the offensive. Even so, air might has remained part of the arsenal that U.S. forces routinely use in what is now largely a ground fight against a shadowy insurgency.

The insurgents have had little luck defending against air attacks. Yet it is difficult to know how effective the strikes have been in killing them, disrupting their movements or improving security for ordinary Iraqis.

The action by U.S. aircraft comes with the nascent Iraqi air force having no offensive strike capability. Late last month the crew of one of Iraq's three U.S.-donated C-130 cargo planes flew a mission without a U.S. instructor aboard for the first time.

According to brief reports provided by Central Command Air Force officials, recent strikes have included a Predator firing a Hellfire missile on Dec. 12 "with successful effects" at an insurgent "improvised explosive device location" near the town of Haditha. An Oct. 7 report said an F-16 expended 1,000 20mm cannon rounds in attacks against insurgents near the town of Haqliniyah.

The role of the Air Force Predator is not secret but has been largely lost in the clutter of violence on the ground. At least five times this month an unmanned Predator flown remotely by airmen at flight consoles at an Air Force base in Nevada has struck targets in Iraq, mostly in insurgent strongholds in western Anbar province.

Gen. Michael T. Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff, said in an interview with reporters at the Pentagon last Tuesday that Predators are attacking targets in either Iraq or Afghanistan "almost every day." He gave no details.

In a more common surveillance role, unarmed Predators are used in Iraq to monitor roads where insurgents might plant improvised bombs. They transmit live images to intelligence units that share the information with ground troops.

The aircraft used most frequently for strike missions in Iraq are Air Force F-16 and F-15 fighters based at an air base in Balad, north of Baghdad; Navy F-18 fighters launched from a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, and Marine Corps F-18s from Al Asad air base in western Anbar province.

Air power played a central role in the initial U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. Aircraft destroyed Iraq's air defenses, pummeled tanks and other armored vehicles and cleared the way for Army and Marine ground forces to dash from the Kuwait border to Baghdad with historic speed and relatively few casualties.

Since then, the air role has changed to where attack planes are largely supporting ground troops.

Other attacks described by Central Command include one earlier this month, when a Predator made a strike against insurgent operations near the town of Rawah.

On Nov. 14, a Predator and Air Force F-16 fighters were summoned to support Marines fighting insurgents at Ubaydi, near the Syrian border. The Predator fired a Hellfire missile at what the military described as insurgents entrenched in a tree line. Earlier that day a Predator attacked a building in Ubaydi used by insurgents.

Central Command's reports on air missions in Iraq provide relatively little detail - even less in recent weeks.

In October, some reports mentioned the type of bomb or missile fired. In one, an F-15 was reported to have fired three GBU-38s, the new satellite-guided 500-pound bomb designed for support of ground troops in close combat. Since then, the type and number of munitions fired have rarely been disclosed.

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