The American military said yesterday that it had fired a satellite-guided missile at what it called an insurgents' training camp on an island west of Kirkuk in Iraq, the first time that such a weapon has been used since the war was declared over.
The missile attack is part of a new operation to crush a growing wave of debilitating guerrilla attacks using artillery, fighter aircraft, attack helicopters and other weapons of conventional war. The operation, known as Ivy Cyclone 2, will be centred on Tikrit, Baquba, Kirkuk and Balad.
The announcement was made as the United States was investigating its largest single loss of the conflict - the death of 17 soldiers when two Black Hawk helicopters crashed into one another after one of them was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Mosul on Saturday.
Eager to counter domestic unease over mounting losses, the American military sought to advertise their latest crack-down by declaring that they had fired a satellite-guided missile at what it said was an insurgents' training camp on an island in a river west of Kirkuk. A US military spokesman said it was the first use of such a weapon since the first phase of this war ended with the fall of Saddam Hussein.
It came after a week of bad news which saw an unrelenting rise in the American death toll, which last night stood at 417, and culminated with the unveiling of a new plan for the Americans to accelerate the transfer of political responsibility to Iraqis - while keeping forces in the country.
There was a further niggling setback for the Americans yesterday when Al-Arabiya television station, which is widely seen in Iraq and the Middle East, broadcast another audiotape purportedly by Saddam Hussein.
Borrowing from George Bush's "war on terror" lexicon, the new Saddam tape sought to rally the resurgent resistance movement still further by declaring that "the evil ones... thought and made others think that they were going on a picnic to occupy Iraq and destroy their weapons of mass destruction" - weapons which it said did not exist. But Iraqis would rebel against efforts to colonise their country, it warned.
To compound the "coalition's" problems, US officers hunting for weapons of mass destruction told the Associated Press that the Iraqi scientist who headed Saddam Hussein's long-range missile programme, Dr Modher Sadeq-Saba al-Tamimi, has fled to Iran - an annoyance for the Bush administration, which is pressuring Tehran over its nuclear ambitions and missile programme.
The first did not slow the pace of attacks on Americans, who - including the Black Hawk crashes - lost 22 lives in a 72 hour period last week. All this, just after suicide bombers launched the bloodiest attack to date on their allies by killing 28 people - including 19 Italians - in Nasiriya, as the guerrillas widened their sphere of operations by pushing south.