The U.S. military conducted more than five times as many airstrikes in Iraq last year as it did in 2006, targeting al-Qaeda safe houses, insurgent bombmaking facilities and weapons stockpiles in an aggressive strategy aimed at supporting the U.S. troop increase by overwhelming enemies with air power.
Top commanders said that better intelligence-gathering allows them to identify and hit extremist strongholds with bombs and missiles, and they predicted that extensive airstrikes will continue this year as the United States seeks to flush insurgents out of havens in and around Baghdad and to the north in Diyala province.
The U.S.-led coalition dropped 1,447 bombs on Iraq last year, an average of nearly four a day, compared with 229 bombs, or about four each week, in 2006.
"The core reason why we see the increase in strikes is the offensive strategy taken by General [David H.] Petraeus," said Air Force Col. Gary Crowder, commander of the 609th Combined Air Operations Center in Southwest Asia. Because the United States has sent more troops into areas rife with insurgent activity, he said, "we integrated more airstrikes into those operations."
The greater reliance on air power has raised concerns from human rights groups, which say that 500-pound and 2,000-pound munitions threaten civilians, especially when dropped in residential neighborhoods where insurgents mix with the population. The military assures that the precision attacks are designed to minimize civilian casualties -- particularly as Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy emphasizes moving more troops into local communities and winning over the Iraqi population -- but rights groups say bombings carry an especially high risk.