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MAHMUDIYAH, Iraq — Hundreds of soldiers poured out of helicopters before dawn Thursday morning and a large convoy kicked off Friday morning, spreading out troops into a patch of canal-laced farmland south of Baghdad that remains one of the last insurgent strongholds outside the capital city.

The air assault launched one of the largest operations in months and aims to secure a rural area where insurgents have operated for months, officials said. A steady string of roadside bombs and mortar attacks have inflicted casualties on U.S. troops in the restive region known as the “Triangle of Death.”

“This could be the final crushing blow for the anti-Iraqi forces in the Baghdad area,” said Lt. Col. Thomas Kunk, commander of the 101st Airborne’s 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment.

After a safe and secure landing, soldiers from the 1st Battalion came under repeated mortar fire Thursday in the blocking positions they set up around a large power plant on the Euphrates River, which insurgents have used as a base of operations.

Soldiers from the 2nd Battalion moved in early Friday and swept south toward the village of Sadr Yusufiyah, a cluster of ramshackle homes that U.S. troops also believe insurgents use to stage attacks on U.S troops and civilians in Baghdad, just 25 miles north.

Commanders opted for an air assault rather than sending vehicles through bomb-seeded roads avoided by U.S. forces in recent months.

One soldier from the 2nd Battalion was evacuated Friday after he was shot in the leg during a gunbattle. No other casualties were reported as of Friday afternoon.

Soldiers from 1st Battalion detained one man and also found a cache of a single mortar tube and several automatic rifles, U.S. troops said.

As U.S. soldiers came under fire, they responded with mortars and counter-battery artillery from nearby U.S. bases, said Maj. Fred Wintrich, the executive officer with 1st Battalion.

The operation in the rural areas marked a significant shift for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, which spent much of the past week focusing on security operations in the urban centers to stem potential sectarian violence in the wake of last week’s bombing of a large Shiite shrine in Samarra.

The 101st Airborne’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team has faced one of the toughest fights in Iraq. The Fort Campbell, Ky.-based unit has seen 31 soldiers killed since arriving here in November.

The targeted area is thick with a mix of Iraqi insurgents and foreign fighters. A Saudi Arabian man and several Iraqis were arrested last week after an Iraqi army unit found them carrying an anti-aircraft gun in their pick-up truck, officials said.

In keeping with the clear-and- hold strategy employed by U.S. troops in recent months, soldiers from the 2nd Battalion plan to set up a permanent patrol base in the village of Sadr Yusufiyah, officials said.

The insurgents’ attacks have fallen particularly heavy on the 1st-502nd’s Company B, which has lost six men and sent several others home with serious injuries since its arrival. Capt. John Goodwin, Company B commander, hopes this week’s assault will ease the daily attacks on the patrol bases and traffic checkpoints.

“We’ve kicked the hornets nest a few times already, now we are going to take a baseball bat and give it a good whack,” Goodwin said.

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