U.S. launches offensive against Iraqi insurgents

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Automatic weapons fire pounded from helicopter gunships, and dozens of rounds of air-launched cannon fire sounded like a clock’s gong in the night Tuesday as the U.S. military conducted operations throughout the Iraqi capital in an effort to root out insurgents.

In Brussels, Belgium, Secretary of State Colin Powell sought to reassure the European Union that Washington was determined to get the security situation in Iraq “under control” by June, the deadline for transferring power to an interim Iraqi government. Powell dismissed a French proposal to turn over control of Iraq to Iraqis by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, President Bush began a four-day state visit in London Tuesday as police there braced for massive demonstrations.

The offensive in Iraq, which included some of the strongest firepower used in Baghdad since major combat ended in May, was matched by similar operations earlier in the day in Tikrit. They were both part of ongoing military crackdowns in central Iraq, where anti-American insurgent activity has been strongest.

“This is war,” Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack Jr., commander of the 82nd Airborne Division based in Ramadi in western Iraq, said during a briefing in Baghdad. “We’re going to use a sledgehammer to crush a walnut.

“We’re not going to prosecute this war holding one hand behind our back,” he added. “We’re going to use enough in our arsenal to win this fight.”

The military operations Tuesday in the capital and central Iraq were portrayed by U.S. military officials as an offensive designed to crush the remains of the anti-American insurgency.

Insurgents struck again Tuesday, wounding two U.S. soldiers with a roadside bomb in the northern city of Mosul, the military said. The military also said a U.S. civilian contractor was killed Monday by a land mine near Baghdad.

In London, Prince Charles greeted the president and first lady at Heathrow Airport. Bush flew by helicopter to Buckingham Palace, where he is staying as a guest of Queen Elizabeth, guarded by several thousand police officers.

Officials say Bush and Blair are likely to discuss at length the plan to accelerate the transfer of power in Baghdad to Iraqi authorities by July 1, and the possibility of a new U.N. resolution to back U.S. policy in Iraq.

Among the demonstrations planned is a Thursday protest in which organizers plan to tear down a makeshift statue of Bush in Trafalgar Square, mimicking the toppling of a statue of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in April.

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