Around 600 US and Iraqi troops launched a pre-dawn assault on Friday on two Sunni Arab villages near Baghdad to flush out suspected Al-Qaeda fighters allegedly hiding among thousands of villagers, US commanders said.
The air and ground assault was launched on the villages of Al-Awsat and Al-Batra, about 25 kilometres southwest of Baghdad on the edge of the border with restive Anbar province.
US commanders said the strike marked the start of Operation Marne Courageous, the military's latest initiative to set up combat posts and patrol bases in areas so far left untouched in southern belts of Baghdad.
"This is an attempt to put a permanent footprint in the region" west of the Euphrates River, said Colonel Dominic Caraccilo, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division.
The operation, he added, is also a bid to find two missing US soldiers kidnapped on May 12 in an ambush on their patrol near the village of Karguli east of the Euphrates.
Reinforcements sent to the scene found four soldiers and an Iraqi translator were dead and two troops missing.
The so-called "Islamic State in Iraq" -- an Al-Qaeda-dominated alliance of Sunni rebel groups -- claimed responsibility for the attack and warned US forces not to search for the men or risk seeing them harmed.
"We believe that some Al-Qaeda members who orchestrated the kidnapping are hiding in these two villages," said Major Jonathan Otto, head of intelligence for the brigade.