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CNN BREAKING NEWS

U.S. Military Launches Largest Air Assault in Iraq Since '03 Invasion

Aired March 16, 2006 - 10:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(NEWSBREAK)
DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: And now the story of trials of a -- now the story of trials of a new drug gone horribly wrong. Six men are now fighting for their lives in a London hospital after voluntarily taking an experimental drug. This man, seen reading about the disastrous clinical trial, actually took part in the test. He took a placebo, and he witnessed the adverse reaction for participants who took the trial drug, known as TGN1412. It was intended to be used for auto-immune diseases and leukemia.

Here is his account of what happened.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RASTE KAHN, DRUG TRIAL PARTICIPANT: Within, I'd say, maybe 20 minutes, kind of like the side affects started kicking in. The first person, like, he was kind of feeling hot and so on, so he took his top off. He looked really uncomfortable, because kept moving from side to side, constantly had his hand his head, like I assume you have a headache, because I was all rubbing his head. So they were all kind of burning up and sweating, like fainting and coming back to consciousness and fainting again, hyperventilating. So they had oxygen masks.

And then everyone was kind of -- you could see everyone was uncomfortable, because they were just not lying still. They were constantly moving, and like moving about and trying to find a place where they're going to be comfortable. And then that one gentleman, the poor fellow who started screaming about his back pains, that was dreadful. Because he -- he was just a full-grown man screaming saying he's in pain, and he was asking for help. He was begging for help.

It felt so surreal. It just didn't feel real. It felt like -- it was kind of like going into a movie and just -- it was like a madhouse. It didn't feel real, from watching people -- all these people vomit and like screaming in pain and looking uncomfortable. It's just -- especially in a hospital, you know, all in one room. You just don't expect it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KAGAN: CNN's Robyn Curnow joins us live from London with the latest on this medical nightmare. Robyn, it sounds absolutely horrible, but do these patients understand that they were part of a medical trial, that there's a big risk involved? ROBYN CURNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. They signed waiver forms, they signed release forms. We've spoken to that gentleman that you just heard now, as well as other volunteers who have taken part in other clinical trials. And they say they were given a lot of information, much medical information as well as being made aware that there were risks involved.

But let me point this out to you, that this is so sort of trial, volunteering for these sort of trials, is pretty common here in the United Kingdom. Students, travelers, people who need money, go and sign up for these trials.

Here is an advert for one of them, in fact for the company, the American company, Paraxel, that conducted this particular drug trial/ And one gentleman we spoke to said he earned just under $4,000 U.S. dollars for about three weeks in hospital testing a kidney drug.

So it's just sort of money, which encourages people to do these trials and maybe, of course, also not maybe take that much care on what they're signing.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KAHN: They give you literally 12 sheets to read through in the space of two or three minutes, and it's quite detailed -- well, quite detailed about the things you're not allowed to do and you're not allowed to drink. So you're trying to read it all and sign it. And they're calling your name up every two minutes. You know, Raste Kahn, so on and so on. And so you're trying to get through this, and you just got to quickly finish reading it and sign it. And they're kind of, like, nagging you to do it, like, quickly and so they can get everything out of the way.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KAGAN: Robyn, what is the drug...

CURNOW: What is important...

KAGAN: I was going to say, what does the drug company say about all this?

CURNOW: Well, the drug company, the German drug company TeGenero, is of course -- understandably, they say they are devastated. They, of course, did not anticipate this reaction, this adverse reaction. They say, importantly, pre-clinical trials in a laboratory did not give any indication that they would have this sort of response on humans. And, of course, they say, they have apologized to the men involved and the families. But a very messy and sad situation for everybody involved.

KAGAN: Well, here in the U.S., an apology wouldn't be enough. How does medical malpractice work there in Britain? Can these patients sue the drug company?

CURNOW: Well, I think, first and foremost, the United Kingdom, of course, is not a litigious society as the U.S. is. And I think that is important. But of course, it's those all important waiver forms. What did they sign? And no doubt, the companies, the drug companies, as well as the testing companies, will make every effort -- their legal departments will, of course, make every effort to ensure that they are not held responsible, if possible.

And of course, they would have made a point that these gentlemen had to be aware that there were some risks, that perhaps there might be some after-effects or some sort of effects. Of course, no one expecting such a violent illness from this drug. So it's these sort of questions, of course, that are going to be answered.

Also big questions -- just what was the dosage of these drugs? Why are two men more ill than four others? Was the dosage administered right? It's these sort of questions that the lawyers are going to be looking at, and of course the doctors are going to be looking at. And there is a medical investigation that is going to be called. The Medical Regulatory Agency there in Britain has said they will conduct an urgent investigation into this process.

And, of course, once the results from that investigation come out, then, I think, we'll be knowing whether -- who is responsible, whether it's the hospital, whether it's just the drug companies, whether it's the testing process. Where and why it happened, nobody seems to know, because it's never happened before.

KAGAN: Robyn Curnow, live from London. Robyn, thank you.

Looking at a situation here in the U.S., huffing and sniffing. Parents, do you know what that is? We'll look at inhalant abuse among young people. Is your kid getting high right under your nose?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KAGAN: We're getting word out of Iraq and U.S. and Iraqi forces have launched a massive airstrike just north of Baghdad.

With more on that, let's go to Fredricka Whitfield -- Fred.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, hello, Daryn.

This is considered the largest airstrike since the beginning of the invasion in Iraq back in 2003. The operation itself, and CNN is confirming this information, involves 50 aircraft and 1,500 Iraqi and U.S. troops, and 200 tactical vehicles, all targeting suspected insurgents in Samarra, just north of Baghdad, as you said, about 60 miles. We're getting more information on this and what perhaps may have precipitated this airstrike. We'll be able to bring that to you -- Daryn.

KAGAN: All right, Fred, thank you.

Let's go to the White House now. Our Suzanne Malveaux standing by. Suzanne, any word about this from the White House?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Sorry, Daryn, I didn't catch your question.

KAGAN: Any word about this massive airstrike north of Baghdad from the White House?

MALVEAUX: Sorry, Daryn, we are just learning of this at this very moment.

KAGAN: OK, well, let's talk about what we do know. President Bush talking about national security today with Republican leaders.

MALVEAUX: Well, that's right. This report was actually released early this morning. It is of course the national security strategy by the White House. It is required by the president to update once a year, to revise his plan. The last time we got one was four years ago, so it's long overdue. But there are two things that really stand out in the report. One of them, of course is very harsh language when it comes to Iran. The report saying we may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran. The administration going on to make the case here that over the span of 20 years or, so they believe Iran has been trying to establish and develop a nuclear weapon, so this is something that the administration in a broader picture is ratcheting up the rhetoric.

The other thing, of course, that stands out here is the reaffirmation of the preemptive strike policy. You may recall, Daryn, of course this was the justification for going to war with Iraq, saying that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, that it was a dangerous regime posing a threat to the United States. We've since learned there were no such weapons of mass destruction. But the policy remains in place here. No apologies about that.

It goes on to say that, "if necessary, however, under long standing principles of self-defense, we do not rule out the use of force before attacks occur, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack."

And then, Daryn, finally, there are seven different countries that this report singles out as particularly dangerous when it comes to a tyranny of those dangerous regimes: North Korea, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Belarus, Burma and Zimbabwe -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Suzanne Malveaux at the White House, thank you.

We're going to get back this breaking news story out of Iraq, the largest airstrike in that country by U.S. and Iraqi forces since the beginning of the war. We will go live to Baghdad, also get the latest from the Pentagon.

We'll do that after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KAGAN: And we're getting word out of Iraq of the largest air assault in Iraq since the beginning of the war in '03.

For more on that, let's go to the Pentagon and Barbara Starr -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Daryn, this word just coming in the last few minutes. The U.S. military, as we are reporting, announcing in Baghdad it has begun the largest air assault operation since the invasion of Iraq. What is different, of course, this time, this operation is in conjunction with Iraqi security forces.

According to an announcement that has just come out, more than 1,500 Iraqi and coalition troops, over 200 tactical vehicles, 50 aircraft participating in this operation. It is aimed at insurgents northeast of Samarra. Now, you will recall it was that region where the mosque was blown up, where there has been so much of this sectarian violence that has emerged in the last many days.

There was a briefing, a news briefing, just a little while ago out of Baghdad, and none of this was mentioned at that briefing. Obviously, there was a good deal of concern about operational security.

But what we do know is over the last several days the U.S. military has been struggling to develop a strategy to try to counter this sectarian violence, to find a way to go after it.

What has emerged in the last couple of days in this strategy discussion about what to do is to try and identify who's behind this sectarian violence. And what we were told this morning is that there's a growing belief it was the foreign fighters, it was al Qaeda in Iraq, the typical insurgents that we have seen over the last many months that had been sparking much of this sectarian violence and then trying to get Shia and Sunni to turn against each other to try and unsettle the current Iraqi government and the current Iraqi security forces.

So by all accounts, this new operation today, it is called "Operation Swarmer," is an attempt certainly not just to go after the insurgents, but to go after those who are sparking the sectarian violence and to try and demonstrate that Iraqi security forces really are in the field operating with the United States, trying to go after these groups.

The U.S. units that are involved in this air assault operation include several units from the 101st Airborne Division. Air assault certainly is a key indicator that there is a significant helicopter assault force underway at this hour trying to go after insurgent targets, trying to go after some of the organization that has really been sparking this very deadly sectarian violence.

One indicator, Daryn, of how bad it has gotten, the briefing in Baghdad this morning, we heard that vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, the car bombs, that the rate of attacks was up 65 percent in just one week. Clearly it is Iraqi civilians who have been suffering the most -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Barbara, a lot more military questions to ask you, so I'm going to have you stick around to us. But right now, I want to go live to Baghdad.

Our Nic Robertson standing by there.

Nic, what can you tell us about the area north of Baghdad that has been targeted in this attack?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTL. CORRESPONDENT: Well, Daryn, we're being told by Iraqi sources here, Iraqi security sources, that the attack is focusing on three particular villages. They say that there are Arab fighters there, as well as local Iraqi insurgents. They say that these particular groups in this area have been responsible for looting, for killings, and they say that they're also responsible for the killing of the journalist, the three journalists, who were killed in Samarra several weeks ago when they covered the destruction of the Shia's holy shrine in that city that sparked so much of the sectarian violence recently.

We heard from -- in the military statement, that there are 1,500 Iraqi troops, 200 tactical vehicles, 50 aircraft involved in this operation, both attack and assault aircraft we're told.

The figure that we haven't been told about yet is how many U.S. troops are involved in this operation. We do know it's a joint operation, and the statement from the U.S. military does say that the joint operation has come as a result of the training, the recent completion of training of Iraqi forces in that area. But we don't know how many U.S. troops are involved. But the scale of it described as the largest air assault since the operation, the beginning of the war in Iraq.

Now that area of Samarra just north of Baghdad is an area of countryside. It is an area that is predominantly a Sunni area. It is -- it does have some mixed Shia, Sunni areas, but predominantly a Sunni area. And it is an area where there has been a lot of violence recently. And the most significant point in that violence several weeks ago, the destruction of that Shia shrine, that sparked so much of the state sectarian tension recently -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Nic, what about the significance of the involvement of this large number of Iraqi troops?

ROBERTSON: Well, this is very much in the vein that the U.S. military here is trying to operate. It wants to operate, and has been increasingly operating, in conjunction with Iraqi forces, ever increasing the ratio of Iraqi to U.S. forces in their operations, because they want the Iraqi forces to be able to stand alone, because the Iraqi forces often at times will understand and communicate with the local people more efficiently, because at times the Iraqi forces will know the land and the terrain better, perhaps, than the U.S. forces.

Now, it is that combined operation that we have seen in the west of Iraq last year, starting in August, September, with the operations in Al Anbar Province, working down the Euphrates River Valley from Al Chaim (ph) on the border, all the way down to Ramadi, clearing out insurgent strongholds.

And it's the tactic and method that's being used here. I think it would be reasonable to say that when it's described as the largest air assault, and we know there are attack aircraft and assault aircraft involved, it's very likely that the predominance of those aircraft will be likely be U.S. military assets. But the Iraqi do have a couple of aircraft and they do have several helicopters at their disposal. But, again, we don't know the number of U.S. troops involved. But this is being described as a very large operation -- Daryn.

KAGAN: All right, Nic, back to you in just a moment.

Right now I want to go to the phone. General George Harrison, retired of the U.S. Air Force, on the phone with us right now to talk about this operation.

General, good morning.

GEN. GEORGE HARRISON (RET.), U.S. AIR FORCE: Good morning, how are you?

KAGAN: I'm doing OK. Looking for some information and some insight on what they are calling the largest air assault of this combination of Iraqi and U.S. coalition forces since the beginning of the war. What do you make out of the use of air power, sir?

HARRISON: Well, I think the previous comments are right on the mark. The Iraqi force is primarily focused -- of course, what we're trying to do, as a general strategy, is to make the Iraqi army more self-sufficient and enable them to operate without significant U.S. support. But in this case, of course, the Iraqi army does not have significant air power, either rotary wing nor fixed wing.

There a few transport aircraft that are being staffed or crewed by Iraqis. But this kind of operation is going to require significant U.S. involvement, and I think it will probably highlight the need to broaden the equipage and training of the Iraqi forces.

KAGAN: Because a significant military can't operate unless it does have an Air Force?

HARRISON: Certainly. You just have to do -- these days, for mobility purposes and for firepower purposes, as you move a mobile force around -- you can't logistically move heavy artillery support, for instance, so you do rely on air power. But this will illustrate the need to broaden the training of the Iraqi military.

KAGAN: And we have not heard a lot about air assaults. What do you make of the decisions to go in that direction?

HARRISON: Well, I think that's -- I think that's just a logical way to move. Air assault is an efficient way of getting troops on the ground. It's a good way to operate. Of course, the U.S. Army has been doing that for decades now. So I think that it's, again, an introduction of the Iraqi army into the way the U.S. Army operates. And I think it will probably be a very productive way of doing it.

KAGAN: General, say with me. I want to bring in our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr -- Barbara.

STARR: Well, Daryn, this phrase that we're hearing now, air assault. Let's try and help people understand what is likely to be going on. As the general indicated, that does indicate that troops, perhaps, are landing via -- coming from helicopters.

But as Nic Robertson said, if they are indeed targeting three villages, what they are looking for is very precision targeting against areas where there would also be civilians. So we're not probably looking at aerial bombardment, F-16 to F-18s, that kind of thing, from high altitude. But helicopters, U.S. Army helicopters, coming in with very precision weapons, perhaps hellfire missiles, their guns, looking at targeting known insurgent areas, trying to ensure that they limit any type of civilian damage or collateral damage. That's very tough business, of course, we know. But that would be their goal here.

Now, the U.S. military, of course, the Army especially, has been conducting air assault operations across Iraq since the beginning. In the last many weeks and months, they have been trying to integrate Iraqi forces into that type of air assault activity. This announcement that the military put out just a little while ago about this indicated that there had been, in their words, ground infiltration into some of these target areas.

So they are moving troops in by ground. They say that they have already --- they say, had some initial success in recovering weapons, IED materials. Uniforms, that type of thing. That would be an indication --that's the kind of things these fake uniforms, these fake I.D.s --the kind of thing that they have been looking for now in this uptick in sectarian violence.

They're looking for the people that are placing IEDs, that are disguising themselves as Iraqi security fores and then carrying out these attacks. This is the type of sectarian violence, the type of insurgent activity, that's very difficult to locate, very difficult to go after. But apparently, by all indications, they certainly have the intelligence in this region of Iraq that would lead them to be able to go after these targets.

What we also know, Daryn, is that the U.S. military and Iraqis are stepping up their presence today and in the days to come in Baghdad. That is another area where the sectarian violence has been severe. We learned this morning at the Pentagon briefing -- at the briefing in Baghdad, excuse me, before this operation was announced that they are putting several hundred more U.S. and Iraqi troops in and around the Baghdad area.

They will be conducting security patrols, going on missions, checkpoints, trying to control what is going on in Baghdad, trying to find the insurgents who are laying these car bombs, these IEDs, conducting these executions, these death squads. This is what they are trying to go after now and get that violence under control -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Barbara, thank you.

Let's go back to Baghdad and bring Nic Robertson back in here.

Nic, one of the concerns and difficulties in fighting and trying to route out insurgents has been that they do intermingle among civilians, leading to civilian casualties.

ROBERTSON: That's correct. And there have been civilian casualties, caught up in ongoing operations. Very likely the way that this operation would unfold -- we know there are 200 tactical vehicles. There are these air assets, attack and air assault aircraft involved.

It would seem, the way we've seen these types of operations unfold, a cordon will be placed around a given area, likely the target houses in that area. Very clear -- have been clearly identified and known about to U.S. and Iraqi military. And that they will and perhaps bring the helicopters, if that's what they're using, in as close as possible to drop the troops off there so they can move as speedily as possible into those buildings.

Now -- we told -- we have been told that the operation got underway early this morning. We don't know if it began before dawn. Typically, often, these large raids can begin in the early hours of the morning when it's assessed that perhaps the insurgents, the targets or the operation, would all still be sleeping, would be at their least ready and prepared to defend themselves.

It's not clear whether or not darkness was used as cover to bring in the troops into that area, but very likely, the cordoning off of the area, the vehicles used to block -- roads used to block points where their insurgents might try to escape from, would also be used to control the civilian population, to stop the civilian population getting into the area and getting hurt, and perhaps to control the egress of civilians being evacuated out of the area.

But it will certainly be a concern to both the Iraqi troops and the U.S. troops, as they go into that operation, that there will be civilians in the area, perhaps even civilians living in the house with the insurgents. There have been cases that I've seen, operations I've been on, where people suspected of being insurgents with a large number of weapons have been living in farm buildings with families, often their own families.

So that will be something that the troops are used to dealing with. Very difficult when they go in armed. Very difficult, if they have to use artillery or explosives to gain entry to buildings. But it will be a concern, but very likely, they'll be doing their best to mitigate any civilian casualties -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Nic, another question for you about this area. It seems like so much of the reporting we've heard about insurgents has been more to the northwest, along the Syrian border, than rather right north of Baghdad. Well, and perhaps that's an indication. There was a very extensive operation in the fall of last year down the Euphrates River Valley, which did seem to result, for a couple of months at least, in a reduction of the number of reduction of suicide bombs, a reduction in the number of car bombs. And if that was an inference of how the insurgent infrastructure was damaged or put on hold, if you will, perhaps the insurgents moved out of that area to the area around Samarra. Perhaps they tried to find somewhere different to operate from, having been cleared out of that area. That's not clear. That would just be a very rough assessment on what we have been able to see happen.

But the insurgency operates from many parts of the country. The insurgency is indigenous to the population here. It can be in one village and not in another. I've talked to military commanders who say, yes, we can see when another cell begins operating, because we see a spate of roadside bombings in that particular area.

And this very much occurs in the area north of Baghdad. There were -- there was, just a few weeks ago, as we were talking about earlier -- that very, very significant and big bombing at the Shia shrine in the town of Samarra.

We have been told by Iraqi security sources that they believe the areas being targeted on this particular raid, Operation Swarmer, were the areas where it was an area where the three journalists who were -- who were broadcasting on the day of the attack on that Shia shrine several weeks ago were taken to and where they were killed. And it would seem that the insurgency, if they got a foothold in this area, now have taken up this foothold within villages, not within the -- not within the cities. Perhaps feeling that they're safer outside of the cities -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Nic Robertson is live with us in Baghdad.

I want to welcome viewers that are watching with us across the U.S. and all of our viewers watching on CNN International, all around the world.

I'm Daryn Kagan.

We're following this breaking news out of Iraq. It is an announcement of the largest air assault in Iraq since the beginning of the war in '03. It's a combination of Iraqi security forces and their coalition, including U.S. partners.

For more on details of the operation, let's go back to the Pentagon and our correspondent Barbara Starr -- Barbara.

STARR: Well, Daryn, you know, more details emerging as we go along here. And we do expect obviously to be able to show our viewers some photographs, potentially even some video, if and when that becomes available.

It is apparently unfolding as a typical air assault operation. What the military is saying, as Nic points out, that basically attack and assault aircraft began by providing airborne weapons support, if you will, flying overhead, firing from the air, providing air cover for the operation as they delivered troops on the ground. And those troops began to move to their objectives on the ground.

But it should be noted here that it's been a very long three years in Iraq. There have been a number of operations where the military has said that this has been the major offensive, the major effort in a particular area to root out the insurgency and that they feel they're making progress. And, of course, we have seen the insurgency and the fighters come back time after time and, again, with this latest wave of sectarian violence.

The Pentagon pointing out, in fact, that this operation, Operation Swarmer, comes shortly after in early March there was another major operation west of Samarra, not all that far away, where they say that operation yielded the capture of major weapons and major insurgents that they took into custody.

So just to be very realistic about this, it is very tough going for the military and for the Iraqis, very tough business. But clearly, since the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, senior U.S. military commanders feel that really three years later, once again, the shape, the substance of this conflict in Iraq has shifted, that it is something very different than it was previously.

There is now this sectarian violence. Whether it is sparked by insurgent activity, al Qaeda activity in Iraq, clearly a major effort to try and unsettle whatever security structures there are in Iraq. So the military, the U.S. military responding now in a major way, but it will remain to be seen whether this operation, billed as the largest air assault since the war began, whether at the end of the day it makes a real substantive difference to the security structure, the security situation in Iraq -- Daryn.

KAGAN: All right.

Nic, let's go back to you live in Baghdad. A couple points to get to you here with.

One, it's not just the U.S. military this time. It is the involvement of Iraqi security forces as well. The significance of that?

ROBERTSON: Well, the significance of that is this is something that the U.S. forces here have been trying to -- trying to achieve, trying to train up Iraqi forces to provide security within their own country. There are a number of operations, particularly in the fall of last year, have involved Iraqi forces.

In the statement released by the U.S. military about this operation, they say that this is being conducted with recently-trained Iraqi troops. And I think one of the other things we can see when we look at this operation, if we think about some of the previous operations, large-scale operations -- and this is being declared a large-scale operation -- the operation in Falluja towards the end of 2004, November 2004, the operations in the Euphrates River Valley in the fall of last year, they were telegraphed, if you will.

The insurgents in those areas knew those operations were coming. They saw the buildup of forces. They saw -- they saw the sort of blocking positions being put in around the towns and were able, in some cases, if they so chose, to escape those areas.

It appears by the nature of the description of this particular operation, Operation Swarmer -- and we are already beginning to learn the first few details -- that it appears as if this is a big push, a fast push with very little to give away. The fact that this is a big operation about to happen, and perhaps it is using time-sensitive information about -- about the whereabouts of some key insurgents, that's not clear. That would just perhaps be an inference from the way this operation progressed.

But it does seem to be different from previous operations in that it hasn't been telegraphed in advance. There hasn't been a lot of -- there hasn't been information about it before it's well under way. And that has been relatively unusual for an operation of this scale at least -- Daryn.

KAGAN: All right, Nic.

I want to go to the phones and get some more military analysis, bring in -- bring in General George Harrison of the U.S. Air Force, retired.

And General, we're just getting our first pictures in to us from the U.S. military of this assault. And I don't know, General, are you near a television?

OK. We don't have the general.

Let me bring Barbara in just to help us get an idea of the pictures that we're looking at here.

The first thing that comes to mind, clearly this is an attack that took place in daylight hours, Barbara?

STARR: Daryn, looking at this picture I'm going to be very cautious at the moment until I talk to some officials. What you do see here are helicopters clearly poised for taking off to go on a mission.

This apparently is a photo released by the Defense Department. Not clear to me standing here whether they immediately then took off in daylight hours, whether this was dusk by the time they got to their objective, whether dusk had fallen or not, I simply don't know.

But one of the things that is interesting to me is Iraq is a place where weather does often continue to dictate helicopter operations in particular. Sandstorms kick up. The weather gets bad. And they can't fly.

So clearly, one of the things that happened here, as you might well expect, was an awful lot of operational security, making sure that people didn't know this was about to unfold. As Nic Robertson so correctly pointed out a moment ago, the military operates often on very time-sensitive information, so they certainly try and get in before the situation on the ground changes.

If they were successful here, it really would be an indicator that the Iraqi units they are operating with are very trustworthy, that the U.S. commanders have a lot of faith in them, that nobody would give it away, and that they could launch this operation with a good deal of surprise. It will remain to be seen what other photographs we get, what other sort of assessments the Pentagon is able to give us in the hours ahead -- Daryn.

KAGAN: OK.

We do have General George Harrison, retired from the U.S. Air Force, with us back on the phone.

General, let me ask you some military basics here. Helicopters like this would be used to move troops?

HARRISON: Yes. As a matter of fact, it will be a -- it will be a combined force of troop carrier helicopters, as well as armed helicopters.

I think Barbara Starr hit it about right in terms of the structure of the operation. Fixed wing support, of course, is much more precise now than it was in the old days when air assault was developed in Vietnam. The ordnance that will be used is primarily the smaller weapons.

This is an urban combat environment. So collateral damage is a huge problem. And again, the primary air support, the helicopter -- troop carrier helicopters and the attack helicopters, will be operated by U.S. -- U.S. Army and the fixed wing, of course, by Navy and Air Force.

KAGAN: And so they could be using -- operated by Americans, but could be using these to transport Iraqi forces as well?

HARRISON: Most certainly. Mots certainly. I'm sorry I wasn't clear about that.

KAGAN: No, that's all right. You know, it's not a matter of being clear or not. It's just that this is a new type of operation as we're watching a greater involvement and a growing involvement of the Iraqi security forces.

HARRISON: Yes. Now, it's important to realize or to recognize, by the way, that the -- that air assault techniques, it's not just a matter of putting a soldier on a helicopter and dropping him off in an employment area. He has to be -- the soldier has to be trained and has to -- has to alter his way of operating significantly in a lot of ways.

So this is a product of significant training of the Iraqi army. This is not something that probably could have been done two years ago.

KAGAN: Two years or even six months ago, perhaps?

HARRISON: Or six months ago, maybe.

KAGAN: Because that has been one of the ongoing challenges, to bring the Iraqi security forces up to a level where they could handle something like this. And eventually, of course, the goal being that they can take over the security for themselves.

HARRISON: Certainly. And I think the fact that they are being integrated into an air mobile or air assault operation indicates that there is a significant amount of training that has been accomplished. So this is -- this is an encouraging sign.

KAGAN: One thing that Nic Robertson touched on, this idea that these security forces could be trusted. So many questions, whether it's police or Iraqi security forces, who's on who's side.

HARRISON: Well, that's always a consideration. And I'm -- I'm really not qualified to talk very much about that. But it does indicate that there is a high degree of trust because these are complex operations. It requires training troops and trusted troops, obviously.

KAGAN: I just mean in the challenge of developing the security forces and in developing the relationship with somebody other than who would be American.

HARRISON: Yes, I take your point. And -- and again, this does - this does indicate a significant amount of progress, and encouraging progress.

KAGAN: When we talk about an operation that's time-sensitive, how long would it take to plan an operation like this, General?

HARRISON: Oh, I would imagine that the planning has been going on for more like weeks than days. It requires -- we're talking about a large number of troops, probably, a very synchronized operation.

The helicopters have to -- or the transport helicopters have to touch down very precisely. The troops have to have clear objectives.

So there was probably quite a bit of planning, map study, rehearsal, those kinds of things to put this together. It's not -- it's not a matter, again, of just putting troops on helicopters and dumping them in the middle of an employment area. It's a very synchronized, carefully planned and executed operation.

KAGAN: And so you plan -- and one of the factors Barbara Starr was pointing out, weather being such an important contingent -- you plan and then you look for your window of opportunity.

HARRISON: Exactly. Exactly. And I'm sure the plan has been in somebody's mind for some time now. The weather, of course, does tear you up. You may recall that during the Iranian hostage rescue attempt, the sandstorm just killed that entire operation. Those kinds of things can destroy any kind of planning. So you do have to be very meteorologically aware.

KAGAN: What about the challenge that we've seen -- and as Barbara and Nic have both pointed out, we have seen a number of operations take place over the last three years. We tend to see this thing happen, the military goes into a certain area to root out insurgents, only to see them move on and pop up in another area of the country.

HARRISON: Well, I think that's going to be with us for a long, long time. It's kind of like the drug war in New York City.

We're going to continue to -- continue to work those problems. And I certainly don't see a magic solution or a single operation being the answer to this -- this quandary that we're in.

KAGAN: Once again, if you're just joining us, we are following breaking news out of Iraq, what the U.S. military is calling the largest air assault in Iraq since the beginning of the war in '03. It's a combination this time of coalition forces and Iraqi security forces.

Now, we have been looking at some of these photographs that we received from the Defense Department, some of the first photographs -- actually, the first photographs that give any indication of what took place.

You see on the left side of your screen some of the facts about what took place, 200 tactical vehicles involved, more than 50 aircraft participated. And the operation is expected to continue for several days.

On the phone with me right now is General George Harrison, retired Air Force -- U.S. Air Force general.

General, talk about an operation like this going over several days. What are the different phases that it would go through?

HARRISON: Well, obviously, the first phase is the initial assault phase. The most complex part of the thing, if it goes over several days, is logistics re-supply.

As you might imagine, when you -- when you do an air a assault, the troops are relatively lightly loaded. That is, they don't carry a huge amount of ammunition. They have to be re-supplied by vertical envelopment, by helicopters.

So their -- their ammunition, their water, food, all those things have to be brought in. And, of course, that requires that you secure a line of communications so that you can bring that stuff in and don't leave the troops out there exposed.

That is complicated, of course, by the fact that most of the troops, many of the troops are Iraqis. That means that you have communications issues. But the sustainment of the troops is probably the biggest concern. Sustainment and having a good awareness of their progress toward the objectives that you planned.

KAGAN: We're going to pick up on those points in just a minute. Retired Air Force General George Harrison on the phone with me right now.

We'll also get back to Barbara Starr at the Pentagon for the latest and Nic Robertson live in Baghdad.

As we continue to follow this breaking news, a huge air assault north of Baghdad in Iraq. Iraqi security forces and coalition forces as well.

We're back with more after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KAGAN: Welcome back to our rolling coverage of this breaking news coming out of Iraq. I want to welcome our viewers who are watching across the U.S. and all around the world on CNN International.

It is word out of Iraq of the largest air strike, the air assault operation in Iraq since the beginning of the U.S. invasion back in 2003. They're calling it Operation Swarmer, and this time it's not just U.S. forces. It is U.S. and Iraqi security forces, coalition forces as well.

They're calling it Operation Swarmer. It is taking place about 60 miles north of Baghdad.

Baghdad is where we find our Nic Robertson to bring us the latest on what he knows not just of the operation, but of this area that's being targeted and why it would have such heavy target interest -- Nic.

ROBERTSON: Well, Daryn, the operation is taking place just north of the town of Samarra. Most of our viewers remember that town from a few weeks ago when they large Shia shrine there, a very important shrine was demolished. It triggered a round of sectarian violence that is really still going on.

At the moment, the operation, according to Iraqi security forces we've talked to, is focused on three particular villages. But I'm joined right now by Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari.

Mr. Zebari, what do we know about this area just northwest of Samarra? Who lives there?

HOSHYAR ZEBARI, IRAQI FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, this area has been recently a hotbed for insurgents and terrorists. And as you mentioned, that recently we've seen this bombing of the holy shrines that was just about to lead the country into more violence. But the leadership managed to contain it and not to allow the country drift into war -- full-out sectarian violence or war.

It's very close to Baghdad, geographically. And really, it has been a the transit for many of these terrorists, insurgents to send car bombs or to attack convoys in that part of country. So this operation has been anticipated for some time to clear, to root out those insurgents and to make the supply lines safer into Baghdad.

ROBERTSON: When you say this operation, Operation Swarmer has been known about before. This -- specifically, these villages, this specific area?

ZEBARI: I don't have operational details, really, about the targets and so on, but from all the intelligence reporting we can see that they have -- that the insurgents and the terrorists have been assembling themselves there, trying to create another Falluja, that part of the country which will not be tolerated. And this operation shows also the rising capabilities of the Iraqi forces and troops that are participating in this in a large or a medium-scale operation. This is a good exercise and indication that this strategy is working to build Iraqi troops to be self-sufficient.

ROBERTSON: Well, just how much have they improved? And how useful could Iraqi troops be on an operation like this?

ZEBARI: I think after the Samarra incident they proved themselves to be capable to control the situation to a great extent. Also, we see really there is progress in their performance, although this is an on going process for training, equipmenting them with the right equipment, the right armaments to clear their ranks from infiltrators, from any sectarian, let's say, influence or infiltration by other elements of the former regime and so on. But we think that there has been a progress in the training, in the buildup of the Iraqi forces.

ROBERTSON: But when you look at an operation like this, exactly what capabilities do the Iraqi troops bring that perhaps American troops don't in a situation where they're perhaps going to houses or families in the houses, that sort of situation?

ZEBARI: Well, definitely, there is better relations between the Iraqi troops and the American or the multinational forces in carrying out this kind of operation. Both of them need each other, definitely, because they are familiar with the culture, with the people, with the terrain, they have the intelligence. Also, I think they can help each other in a more effective way.

ROBERTSON: When one sees an operation of this scale against insurgents, one can't but help wonder, is it targeting Abu Musab al- Zarqawi? Could it be? Is he known to be in this area?

ZEBARI: Well, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and others have been moving throughout the country. They have not been able to station themselves in any specific area, mainly because of these continuous raids and follow-up and intelligence that we can get, the Americans get, you see. And I would not discount it, but really, it's very early to predict. I mean, what kind of leadership is there from the terrorists or from the insurgents? But as I said, it has been a hotbed for those activities, and they need to be rooted out.

ROBERTSON: You said that the government doesn't want to allow another Falluja to set up. Falluja, the town in Al Anbar that was a last stand for -- for some of the insurgents in late 2004. Has there been a movement of insurgents as operations have struck (ph) up in that area?

ZEBARI: Yes, definitely. After Falluja operation, after some of the operations that were carried out successfully in the Euphrates Valley, or near the Syrian border, many of these insurgency groups moved to other parts of the country, to Diyala (ph), to Samarra, to some other parts around Baghdad. And that's why they should be on the run most of the time or rooted out. Otherwise, the moment they get confidence to establish themselves, they will establish another Falluja.

ROBERTSON: When you perform an operation of this scale in an area, there are civilians in that area. What are the follow-up operations that have to take place to ensure that there isn't a negative reaction perhaps following?

ZEBARI: Well, definitely. I mean, those considerations have to be taken into account. And the presence of the Iraqi units or participation of the Iraqi army with the multinational forces, with the American forces is helpful in that direction, because they can really be helpful to avoid collateral damages to the civilians.

But these terrorists, really, they have been hiding in civilian areas. And the daily killing of Iraqis, ordinary Iraqis, as we have seen in Sadr City recently and others, they have no conscience whatsoever. So they need to be eliminated and rooted out.

ROBERTSON: We've seen killings in Baghdad recently...

ZEBARI: Yes.

ROBERTSON: ... bodies turning up, more than 100 in the last few days. We've seen more Iraqi army troops on the streets of Baghdad new.

How long before the Iraqi army is able to take over from the job that the United States Army is doing right now?

ZEBARI: This is a process, again, Nic. You've been following us from the beginning. And really, it will take time.

Not a long time, I hope, but definitely the more we gain control, we assume responsibilities from the American, from the multinational forces, the fear that Americans (INAUDIBLE). And this is an ongoing process. We've seen that happen in many parts of the country.

And this is the critical part for us to form a new government, a government of national unity, for the multinational forces to be able to deal with effectively, for them then to leave or to downgrade their presence in one way or another. That is the strategy at the moment, and that's why we are so focused to get this government right as soon as possible.

Today we have a good day, the first day of the session of the assembly. You were there. And this will put pressure on the political leaders to accelerate efforts to form that government as soon as possible.

ROBERTSON: Well, indeed, as the operation in Samarra, the military operation was going on there, the first meeting since the elections three months ago of the new parliament was under way.

ZEBARI: Yes.

ROBERTSON: I was there, but I didn't see a lot of progress on the surface. A stumbling block over who's going to be the prime minister.

How long for the new government?

ZEBARI: I think after today's session the efforts will be speeded up, will be accelerated. There is an awareness that the country does not need any vacuum. The more vacuum, the more terrorists attacks we'll see more killings, we'll see more sectarian tension we will see. But the question is, what kind of a government do we need?

There is a broad agreement among Iraqi leaders that there should be a government of national unity, a government of inclusiveness, the participation of all, let's say, on a fair basis. So to be able to meet the challenges ahead.

ROBERTSON: Foreign Minister Zebari, thank you very much, indeed, for your insights and for your time.

ZEBARI: You're most welcome.

ROBERTSON: Well, Daryn, the operation, we're not sure if it's completed yet. We do know that it is the biggest air operation since the war three years ago. The anniversary of the beginning of that war coming up this weekend. Also this weekend there will be some religious festivals here.

So still here in Baghdad and around the country, some very serious concerns, political concerns, military concerns, concerns about insurgents, but very much concerns about ongoing sectarian violence -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Interesting insight from the Iraqi foreign minister, and information as well.

Nic, I look forward to talking to you about those. We're going to do that in just a minute. Right now we need to fit in a commercial break.

But when we get back, much more information on the largest air assault in Iraq since the U.S. invasion began in '03.

We're back after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KAGAN: Welcome back to our rolling coverage of this breaking news out of Iraq. The largest air assault in Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003. This assault involving not only U.S. forces, but Iraqi security troops as well.

They're calling it Operation Swarmer. It's aimed in the area of Samarra, about 60 miles north of Baghdad. It is expected to continue over several days.

Now, within the last few minutes we've been getting in these still photos from the Department of Defense, showing some of the operation underway.

We also are standing by expecting to get some video from the Department of Defense from the area where the assault took place, Samarra. The video, we should tell you, is actually from last week, when they were doing preparations for today's assault.

Want to go back to Baghdad and our Nic Robertson who's been right here with our coverage. He just wrapped up an interview with the Iraqi foreign minister, Zebari.

Nic, a couple of questions for you. First of all, did it surprise you when the foreign minister said that this attack was not a surprise, that they -- because of the increasing violence and decision in Iraq, he said he had been anticipating it for some time to come?

ROBERTSON: Indeed. And he indicated that he was able to look at intelligence assessments of the area, both Iraqi intelligence assessments and U.S. intelligent assessments. And we had heard a similar thing when we called to check our Iraqi sources in that area. What were the targets of Operation Swarmer, and they told us that this -- that the targets, the target villages, were village where insurgents were known to be, known to be operating, where there had been looting, killing people, killed a journalist, the three journalists who were killed covering the attack on the Shia shrine in the town of Samarra several weeks ago.

So perhaps more of a surprise to me, for sure, than Iraq's foreign minister, who's privy to that detailed intelligence. But he said that they'd seen a buildup of insurgents, that the operations in the west of Iraq in the fall of last year had driven some insurgents out of that area, that they didn't feel safe to operate and that they'd moved across into the central Iraq, into the Samarra area. I think very much an intelligence assessment here that a lot of insurgents do move around, but some of them, you know, some of them are indigenous Iraqi people that operate out of their villages and homes, and perhaps at times they're the harder ones to detect, because they're so embedded and protected by their communities - Daryn.

KAGAN: Well, the number-one man wanted in Iraq, you asked the foreign minister, is this an attack trying to get Abu Musab Al Zarqawi. He didn't really seem to answer that question.

ROBERTSON: He didn't. And I think it's clear that unless somebody had been directly involved in this operation, they'd be unlikely to know that sort of detail. There would be a huge amount of concern about letting out who the key targets might be. Even on an operation to capture or kill somebody like Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, you may find that many of the people involved in the operation don't actually know who the key target is, that they may do cordon -- they may cordon an area, they may hit a couple of key buildings near the main building that's the target of operation. But you would -- on something like that, one would manage than the special forces would be at the very sharp end, and perhaps they would be the ones who would know exactly who they're going after, and that information would be restricted because there would be a fear that if that information gets out, it gets leaked somehow to Zarqawi by sympathizers and he would get away.

But the foreign minister, his level of knowledge, the intelligence briefings from the region, but not detailed knowledge of this operation, he said.

KAGAN: Two key things about this operation that stand out. One is size. They're calling, the U.S. military calling it, the largest air assault in Iraq since 2003, since the U.S. invasion. Also the involvement of Iraqi troops. And you had a chance to ask the foreign minister about that and the role they are ready to play at this time.

ROBERTSON: Yes. He said that they're becoming increasingly competent, increasingly more able, better armed, better equipped, better trained to perform operations along side U.S. troops, to perform operations in a stand-alone capability, as they are in many places around Iraq, particularly in Baghdad at the moment. We're seeing more Iraqi troops being deployed there in the last few weeks as sectarian tensions and the killings have risen here. But the foreign minister saying that in his assessment the Iraqi troops getting better, improving all the time.

But when I asked him probably the $64 million question, if you will, when can they take over from U.S. troops he didn't want to give an answer on that,and i think that is one of the improbables here at the moment, how long it takes to build the Iraqi forces, dependent upon so many things -- recruiting enough people, making sure that you get any bad elements that have infiltrated into the Army out, creating a command structure and creating a resupply structure that is under way, but it is -- this is an army that is only growing. That's what we're told very often here -- Daryn.

KAGAN: I believe behind you in the background we can hear the call to prayer. This is a time of significant religious holiday in Iraq, and how might that play into the assault?

ROBERTSON: I think certainly the fact that in a few days time, there will be a very significant religious holiday coming up for the Shia population. There would be an effort, if there were going to be any big operations, that they would be performed away from that holiday period for fear of sort of rising or causing undue tensions. The area that this operation has gone into, and we don't know the specifics of it yet, we don't know exactly where they've gone, we don't know the religious makeup of these villages yet. But that area is a predominantly Sunni area, but when one says that, there are Shia pocket in those areas. We don't know if they were Shia villages. And those would be the ones most sensitive to avoid at a time running up to one of the very important holiday periods for them.

But no doubt something like that would have been factored into the equation of when to go on an operation like this -- Daryn?.

KAGAN: This is an operation expected to last several days. But you also had a chance to talk to the foreign minister about the follow-up period, and especially why that's important to use the Iraqi troops.

ROBERTSON: Absolutely, because there'll be able to talk to the local population, explain in many -- explain what is happening, why it's happening, how it's happening, how the people can be made safe, where they can go perhaps if they're forced to leave their homes, while the operation is happening, and it's oftentimes that very, very simple level of explanation. I've been out on many operations where the troops find themselves, the U.S. troops, find themselves hampered because there aren't enough translators to go around. They don't have translators to explain to the Iraqi people. And quite often a very simply situation that could be easily explained away with a translator really is often left as a frustration for both sides, and having Iraqi troops involved in a longer operation like this will undoubtedly help the Iraqis in that area get a better grip of what's happening, understand what's happening and why it's happening -- Daryn.

KAGAN: And then also in the follow up they were talking partly about the negative reaction and trying to deal with that. But also it's one thing to go into an area and flush it out; it's another to hold it.

ROBERTSON: Absolutely. And that's one of the problems that has occurred, where troops, a large number of troops, have gone into an area, flushed insurgents out, left a security force behind them, but perhaps the force that's left behind isn't strong enough to continue to control the area. Perhaps the insurgents come back and target that force, making them flee their post. That has happened before, although not in a significant way, but perhaps just over a year or so. And sometimes if the security force goes back in, it's already infiltrated by the insurgents, by informers. Or perhaps quite simply because the insurgents are able to apply direct leverage over principle security officials, either by assassination, kidnapping family members, intimidating family members because they all live in the same area. That can compromise any security that you put back into a town after an operation. So the key to not only winning an area, but holding it -- and perhaps this is the key to the principle of security all over Iraq, since the operation three years ago, is that once shoe have won to war, so to speak, you need to provide a security force to hold the ground. And it's numbers, skilled numbers of troop and policemen, that are required to do that. And that is what has been lacking. But as Mr. Zebari said, the foreign minister, Iraqis beginning to built its ability, and capability and numbers up to perhaps match that task. But it is a big task, and certainly I don't think anyone here is underestimating just how hard it is once an area is won, to then hold it and stop insurgents going back in. The way to win that, many people assess, is to make sure that the villages if you will, are on your side, understand what you're doing, believe in what you're doing and what the rewards and benefits that will come with keeping the insurgents out from their area -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Such a big part of building that has to take place is the political side. You also pointed out this is the day, earlier today, that the Iraqi parliament was sworn in. But this is not a politically strong group that has been very effective in moving forward.

ROBERTSON: Even today in that swearing-in, ceremony there were a couple of very small but notable disagreements that really hint at some of the troubles and tensions that underlie this diverse section of politicians -- 275 politician in all, 128 from a very strong religious Shia block, about 55 Sunni politicians, 53 Kurdish politicians. About 25 what are loosely describe as secular politicians, different interests. And of course, as sectarian tensions grow, they will be looking to their populations, fears and concerns, and that makes it difficult for them to reach the politicians, to reach political compromise, and we saw hints of that today.

The real stumbling block at the moment is over the prime minister, Ibrahim Al Jaafari, the current prime minister, been nominated by that large Shia political party. They nominated him for the permanent job for the next four years. The Sunnis, the secular politicians, the Kurd, don't want him. He needs to stand down, they say, and that's the sticking point at the moment, it appear, in forming the new government.

But I did talk the to one politician from that large Shia religious political bloc, and he did hint that they might be ready to change their nomination. But Mr. Jaafari said -- or the current prime minister said he would only stand down from his nomination if the people of the country told him they didn't want him. So I get the impression politicians were saying as well, Daryn, that it could be weeks and weeks, perhaps a month, maybe more, before an agreement is actually reached -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Nic Robertson is live in Baghdad. I'm live at CNN headquarters in Atlanta. We continue our coverage. The largest air assault in Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003. Our coverage continues after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KAGAN: Welcome back to our rolling coverage of this breaking news out of Iraq. The largest air assault in Iraq since the start of the war in 2003. It involves not only U.S. troops, but a significant number of Iraqi security troops, as well. It is targeted northeast of Samarra, which is about 60 miles north of Baghdad, as these satellite pictures show us.

More than 1,500 Iraqi and coalition troops, over 200 tactical vehicles and more than 50 aircraft participating in this operation. Getting underway today, the day that the new Iraqi parliament was sworn in, this operation is called "Operation Swarmer," and it is expected to go over several days.

We also are standing by -- we've received, within the last hour, these photos from the Department of Defense, showing us still photos of the operation underway. But there also is going to be released video of Samarra, of the area that was targeted in this attack, video that was taken within the last week, as the U.S. military and Iraqi forces prepared for this air assault.

We've been talking quite a bit with our correspondent in Baghdad, Nic Robertson.

Nic, if we could go back to the topic of this area, northeast of Baghdad, why it would be a target, and the villages around that area, what these forces might find there.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN BAGHDAD CORRESPONDENT: Well, according to Iraqi security sources in that area, they say that the villages they believe are being targeted, three villages outside of Samarra -- they say a place where there are insurgents hiding out. They describe them as Iraqi insurgents, Arab fighters as well. They say they've been responsible for killings and for lootings recently.

It is an area where there is a Sunni population. The Sunnis have been predominant in the insurgency. They have been, in many cases, supporting the Arab fighters that have been coming into Iraq.

But I want to bring in, Daryn -- I want to bring in correspondent Arwa Damon, who has traveled a lot in the Samarra area fairly recently.

Arwa, what sort of area is the Samarra area and who lives there and why would this be a good place to target?

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, for a number of reasons. First of all, the area around Samarra, for quite some time, and the city of Samarra itself,was, back in Saddam Hussein's time, a thorn in his side. And it has been kind of a thorn or an area of contention for U.S. and Iraqi security forces ever since.

Now, if we go back to November of 2004, a major offensive was launched by the U.S. and Iraqi security forces at that time, where they were trying to get the area under control. Now, since then, relative control has been established there, but it's always been an area where the people have said that they will not listen to any government. They want to stand on their own. These are the tribes that rule that area.

Now, as you have mentioned in the past, after all of the operations that we saw in western Al Anbar Province, a natural movement for the insurgency. The next area, perhaps, where they will be able to find sympathizers would be in that area. The people there are determined not to fall to U.S. forces, not to fall under the Iraqi armies. Predominantly Sunnis, they view the U.S. as being occupiers and the Iraqi security forces, for the most part, as being a pawn of the occupiers of the Americans.

ROBERTSON: Arwa, you've been on a lot of operations with the U.S. military. The offensives in the fall of last year, you've been on a lot of those. On an operation like this, what would be the problems that the troops would face and what would be the advantages of having Iraqi troops with them?

DAMON: Well, the advantages of having Iraqi troops are, most of all, number one, the language. They know the people, they know how to speak with them. And that is what they will use the Iraqi security forces for, to be able to pick up, perhaps, on nuances that someone who does not speak the language can get, to be able to gather intel. The Iraqi security forces, when they're able to interact with the people, for the most part are able to build a bridge that the American forces cannot.

Another factor -- this is wide, vast terrain. These are farm houses, they're remote villages. And they're going to want as many boots on the ground, as they call it, as they possibly can to sweep through this territory around those fields.

ROBERTSON: Just how easy is it for a group of insurgents, let's say, or Arab fighters, to live and to intermingle with the community in this sort of area?

DAMON: Well, if you were to look at it from a non-Iraqi perspective, most people probably would not be able to differentiate between a foreign fighter of Arab nationality or between an Iraqi who's living in that area. Now, for the insurgency to move into these areas, they have different means of, quote, "gaining control of the population that's there."

Sometimes the population sympathizes with the insurgency. They view the U.S. and Iraqi security forces as being against them. They view the U.S. as occupiers. So they're sympathizing with the insurgency that they view as being legitimate. And sometimes it's by sheer intimidation. Or sometimes it's because they can provide the people in these villages and towns with money, with services that right now the government perhaps is not providing them for. So it kind of depends on the area that you're talking about now.

When we talk about Samarra, though, and the area around it, it is known to be predominantly Sunni. It is known to sympathize, to a certain degree, with the insurgency. And it is an area that refuses to fall to U.S. or Iraqi forces.

ROBERTSON: I want to tap in, again, to your knowledge of going on sort of long-form U.S. military operations on the ground. What are going to be the issues for the troops? We know this is an operation that's going to go on for several days. What are going to be their thoughts and concerns? Perhaps not just the enemy, resupply, that sort of thing? DAMON: Well, in an area like that, an area where the terrain is so vast, the fields and farmlands outside of Samarra, the isolated small villages, they're going to want to move in and establish strongholds. They're going to want to clear certain patches of land, make sure that they're clear of insurgents, of any suspects, or of anyone that might have intelligence that they can then tap into. And they're going to want to clear it of any kind of ordinance and any kind of IEDs.

Now, what we've seen in the more recent military operations is that sometimes, when they go into these areas, they're not finding actual individuals who are going to stand up and fight, they're finding IEDs. And IEDs have been scattered throughout this country, and especially in these areas that seem to be deserted. But it is the insurgents' weapon of choice to use, and these are known to be incredibly deadly, in fact the number one killer of U.S. troops.

They're going to be looking for that. They're going to want to sweep through very meticulously as they move forward, as they push through all of these areas that they're going to clear, to make sure that they're not leaving anything behind.

Additionally, they're going to want to set up strongholds, footholds that they can, wherever they can, so they can establish a permanent presence there, to prevent either the insurgents from returning, and also to build the bridge between themselves and the Iraqi security forces and the local population that's there.

ROBERTSON: Arwa Damon, thank you very much indeed.

Arwa Damon, Daryn, our correspondent who's perhaps had more time traveling on operations with U.S. troops than any of our correspondents here over the last several years, bringing us some very clear insights into how this operation will be conducted into how this operation will be conducted, the issues of that the troops will face, and the advantages of having the Iraqi force in there to deal with the Iraqi population.

And I think perhaps over the coming days, we going to learn more about this operation. I think it's going to be very interesting to learn the religious makeup of the villages that are being targeted -- are they Sunni villages? How long have they had sympathies, if that's the case, to the insurgents?

Daryn?

KAGAN: Nic, thank you. Fascinating conversation there with Arwa. You can tell she definitely has spent time in the field and time in this specific area. Learned a lot just by listening to your conversation. Thank you.

Our Barbara Starr has learned more about what they're calling Operation Swarmer. With more on that, let's go to the Pentagon -- Barbara.

Well, apparently we have a problem -- I don't think we're hearing Barbara.

Barbara, we'll work on getting your microphone working there in just a moment.

Meanwhile, let's go to the telephone. Brigadier General Retired David Grange joining you on the phone to talk about this operation.

General, an interesting thing that I learned there from Arwa Damon, that the biggest challenge that troops moving in on that operation might not necessarily people fighting back, but the challenge of getting around IEDs.

BRIG. GEN. DAVID GRANGE, (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, that's always going to be a problem, obviously, with the IEDs. But what's the advantage to the coalition on this, well, actually the combined operation with Iraqis and American troopers, is that they have obviously some surprise. I mean, this operation appears to have been launched with very little knowledge beforehand, and it will give an advantage to the friendly forces going in and may eliminate some of the IEDs that would normally be set up to react to the military moving into an area when they do know ahead of time.

KAGAN: General, I'm going to get back to you in just a moment. I think we have fixed the problem with Barbara's microphone, and she does have late information on Operation Swarmer -- Barbara.

STARR: Daryn, let me take people behind the scenes a little bit here at the Pentagon this morning. Now it is not to minimize this operation in the least, but to provide our viewers with a little context and perspective.

The announcement of this operation first came in a press release from the 101st Airborne Division units that are out in Iraq. They themselves announced it. It was very interesting, because it came just a few moments after their conclusion of a major news briefing in Baghdad by Brigadier Generic Rick Lynch, who was briefing the news media on the events of the day. And he did not mention this operation, and apparently didn't consider it something that would be mentioned at the moment. Perhaps that was to maintain some element of surprise until the press release was sent out about five minutes later. Or perhaps because trying to put this operation into context, this is an operation by the 101st Airborne.

Air assault is what they do. It is a brigade-size operation. It's 1,500 troops. We don't know yet still how many are U.S., how many are Iraqis. The 101st is the one that announced it was the largest air assault since the beginning of the war three years ago just about this week. But air assault operations have gone on in Iraq, and they are trying to train the Iraqi security forces to be able to undertake them.

What they might have had here, as Nic has been pointing out throughout the morning, is realtime intelligence about some element of insurgent operations or some type of sectarian violence going on in these villages. That apparently is why they moved in so quickly. But it remains to be seen how long it will take and whether this operation really will make a difference on the ground -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Barbara, thank you.

Let's look at the difference it might make politically here in the U.S. Let's bring in our senior political analyst Bill Schneider with some poll numbers -- Bill.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POL. ANALYST: Daryn, this operation comes at a time of political doubt and deterioration of support here in the United States. We did a poll in which we re-asked questions that were asked three years ago, and they show a very sharp change. One of them shows growing doubts about the cause.

In March 2003, just after the war began, 68 percent of Americans said that they thought it was situation in Iraq was worth going to war over. That's the number in the upper right. Now only 37 percent of Americans say it was worth going to war in Iraq; 60 percent say it was not. There's also growing doubts about the course of the war in Iraq. In March 2003, 69 percent of Americans said the U.S. was certain to win the war in Iraq. Certain to win. Now that number has dropped sharply. Just 22 percent believe that the United States is certain to win.

And third, there's a lot of pessimism right now about the outcome, what's likely to happen in Iraq. Asked, which do you think is more likely to happen in that country? Fifty-five percent, a majority of Americans, say it's more likely that Iraq will have chaos and civil war compared to 40 percent who believe the Iraqis will be able to establish a stable government. So on all three measure, a lot of pessimism and, of course, that's causing political erosion of the president's support.

KAGAN: And bill, when you look at these numbers, as you are pointing out, you're not just looking at numbers as they stand today, but what you find of interest is when you compare going backwards as well.

SCHNEIDER: That's right, these numbers are compared. The exact same question was asked three years ago when the war was just starting or just ending.

KAGAN: Bill Schneider live in Washington, D.C., thank you.

Our coverage is continuing once again. This is called Operation Swarmer. The U.S. military saying this is the largest air assault in Iraq since the U.S. invasion began in 2003. It involves not just U.S. troops, but Iraqi security forces as well. It is taking place northeast of Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad. It is an operation that is expected to continue over several days.

And in terms of other numbers, it has not just the Iraqi and coalition troops, but 200 tactical vehicles and 50 aircraft participating in this operation.

Our coverage is going to continue. I'm Daryn Kagan. Thank you to our viewers here in the U.S. and around the world on CNN International. Don't go anywhere, because our coverage continues with my colleagues Jim Clancy and Zain Verjee. They pick up after this quick break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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