More than 600 U.S. and Iraqi troops backed by helicopters descended Friday on a remote desert area southwest of Baghdad to root out insurgents...

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BAGHDAD — More than 600 U.S. and Iraqi troops backed by helicopters descended Friday on a remote desert area southwest of Baghdad to root out insurgents and search for two U.S. soldiers missing after a deadly insurgent ambush six months ago.

The soldiers went house-to-house after a dramatic predawn air assault into Owesat and Betra, Sunni villages near the boundary with Anbar province.

U.S. officers said there was no sign of the missing soldiers but stressed it was only the first day of the operation dubbed Marne Courageous, which also aimed to establish a long-term presence west of the Euphrates River in a former al-Qaida in Iraq stronghold.

Col. Dominic Caraccilo, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, said his troops were taking advantage of anti-al-Qaida sentiment among Sunnis that the military says has played a major part in reducing the violence in Baghdad and surrounding areas.

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“The more safe it gets, the easier it is for us to move around and the more we can interact with the populace,” Caraccilo said in a telephone interview. “The more we can interact with the populace, the more they will tell us things.”

American F-16 fighter jets dropped two 2,000-pound bombs on an island in the river that was believed to be used by insurgents as a staging ground for attacks.

Spc. Alex R. Jimenez, of Lawrence, Mass., and Pvt. Byron W. Fouty, of Waterford, Mich., were seized May 12 when insurgents attacked and overran a checkpoint in the volatile area south of Baghdad known as the “triangle of death.”

A third soldier, Pfc. Joseph Anzack Jr., also was captured during the raid; his body was found May 23 floating in the Euphrates River. Four U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi translator were killed during the ambush.

The Islamic State of Iraq, a front group for al-Qaida, claimed in an Internet video that the three missing soldiers were killed and buried. The militants showed images of the military IDs of Jimenez and Fouty but offered no proof they were dead.

The U.S. military disclosed June 16 that it had found the identification cards of Jimenez and Fouty in an al-Qaida safe house near Samarra.

Petraeus to help pick new leaders

WASHINGTON — The Army has summoned the top U.S. commander in Iraq back to Washington to preside over a board that will pick the next generation of Army leaders, an unusual decision that officials say represents a vote of confidence in Gen. David Petraeus’ conduct of the war as well as the Army counterinsurgency doctrine he helped rewrite.

The Army long has been criticized for rewarding conventional military thinking and experience in traditional combat operations, and current and former defense officials have depicted Petraeus’ involvement in the promotion board this month as a sign of its commitment to encouraging innovation and rewarding skills beyond the battlefield.

Some junior and midlevel officers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have been particularly outspoken in their criticisms, saying the Army’s current leadership lacks a hands-on understanding of today’s conflicts and has not listened to feedback from younger personnel.

“It’s unprecedented for the commander of an active theater to be brought back to head something like a brigadier generals board,” said retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, former head of the Army War College.

A senior defense official said Petraeus is “far too high profile for this to be a subtle thing.”

Petraeus, a four-star general with a Ph.D. in political science, has spent three of the past four years in Iraq and has observed firsthand many of the colonels under consideration for promotion. He also is well-regarded by military officials for his political skills in Iraq and at home, including winning support from a skeptical Congress for a U.S. troop increase in Iraq.

Commander to face court-martial

LOS ANGELES — The highest-ranking Marine charged in connection with the 2005 shooting deaths of two dozen unarmed men, women and children in the Iraqi town of Haditha was ordered Friday to face court-martial in April.

Lt. Col. Jeffrey Chessani, 43, is accused of dereliction of duty for failing to properly report and investigate the Nov. 19, 2005, incident at Haditha, which sparked international condemnation of U.S. forces in Iraq.

The former battalion commander was ordered to stand trial beginning April 28 by a military judge sitting at Camp Pendleton in California. If convicted, Chessani could face more than two years behind bars.

Eight Marines originally were charged in the highly publicized case, in which Marines killed 24 men, women and children after a U.S. convoy was hit by a roadside bomb that destroyed a Humvee and killed a popular comrade, Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas.

Since then, charges against two officers and two enlisted men have been dismissed. Two others are awaiting a decision on whether they will face court-martial.

Prosecutors say the Marines, angry over Terrazas’ death, rampaged through the village, killing five unarmed taxi passengers and 19 people in nearby houses.

Defense lawyers say the civilians died during a pitched battle with insurgents that followed the roadside bombing.

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