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U.S. Says New Iraq Offensive Will Send Rebels a Message

By Dexter Filkins

The New York Times -- BAGHDAD, Iraq

After the start of an offensive against Iraqi insurgents, American commanders said on Thursday that they were intent on sending the rebels “a message.”

But here at the site of one of the operation’s primary targets, local Iraqis said they were uncertain what that message was supposed to be.

On the southern edge of the capital, a large building that American commanders said was a “meeting, planning, storage and rendezvous point” for the insurgents still stood, despite the military’s report that it had been destroyed in an airstrike the night before.

American soldiers came to the neighborhood several hours before the attack, local residents said, warning of the impending strike and making sure that everyone in the area was evacuated. Then an American AC-130 gunship strafed the building, knocking holes in the walls and wrecking much of the textile machinery arrayed inside.

After the strike, the Americans came back but detained no suspects, not even the owner of the building, and found no weapons.

The owner, Waad Dakhil Bolane, who said the Americans had warned his guards of the impending air raid, shook his head in befuddlement.

“Does this look like a military base to you?” he asked, standing inside his factory, which was still filled with textile machinery. “The Americans came here, told the guards to leave and then attacked. I don’t understand.”

American commanders, who have been threatening for days to crack down on the Iraqi insurgents, said later that they were certain that the building had been used to fire mortars at American soldiers. One local man seemed to confirm that. Told by a visitor that he intended to visit the factory, the man, Dervish Muhammad, waved his hand in warning. “Look out,” he said. “There are bad people in there.”

But the commanders conceded that their primary aim had been to impress the guerrillas as much as to kill them.

“We were sending a message,” an allied official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The message is, ‘We’re coming.”’

In recent weeks, military commanders have seemed to be judiciously choosing targets that provide relatively benign opportunities to remind Iraqis of the firepower they have at their disposal.

Last week, after the downing of American helicopters in Falluja and Tikrit, American F-16s bombed rudimentary buildings that were suspected of harboring insurgents and materiel. Such planes had been used rarely, if at all, since May 1, when President Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq.

Similarly, the AC-130 gunship, which was used on Wednesday night, seemed to bring far more firepower than was needed to shoot up the textile factory. Even after the attack, the building still stood -- readily available, it seemed, to harbor the same enemy meetings and planning sessions that were suspected before.

For all the technologically advanced weaponry employed in recent days, it is not clear what effect it has had on tamping down the insurgency. Wednesday, the day the American offensive began, turned out to be one of the most intense yet for American soldiers, who were attacked 46 times by Iraqi guerrillas.