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BALAD, Iraq (AP) -- American forces killed four suspected insurgents and arrested more than 50 people as they launched a fourth major offensive in central Iraq, aiming to blunt anti-U.S. attacks expected during upcoming holidays once marked by Saddam Hussein's regime.
As its first public act after it was named Sunday, the new Iraqi governing council abolished six Saddam-era holidays, including the anniversary Thursday of the coming to power of Saddam's now ousted Baath Party.
Meanwhile, gunmen in an Iraqi police vehicle shot at American troops at a checkpoint in Baghdad on Sunday and the soldiers returned fire, witnesses said. It was not clear if there were any casualties, and the U.S. military had no immediate comment. The Americans have been training Iraqi police, and it was not immediately known if the gunmen were actual police or insurgents using the vehicle.
U.S. forces also detained nine "high value targets" in raids near Mosul, in northern Iraq. None of the suspects were on the list of 55 most wanted Iraqis from Saddam's old regime.
The military also announced that one soldier was killed and two others injured early Sunday when a tractor trailer crashed accidentally into their vehicle, which was parked at a checkpoint outside a base in Diwaniyah, 100 miles south of Baghdad. The names of the soldiers are being withheld pending notification of next of kin.
The Army's 4th Infantry Division launched operation "Ivy Serpent" Saturday night with a series of raids on suspected pro-Saddam holdouts, instituting aggressive checkpoints and sweeps through illegal weapons markets in the Baqouba and Balad on the Tigris River north of the capital.
"We're going offensive to disrupt potential attacks against us by Baathists and former Fedayeen elements," said Colonel David Hogg, a commander of the 4th Infantry's 2nd Brigade.
He said two homes that were used to produce anti-U.S. propaganda materials were seized and that American forces came under rocket-propelled grenade and AK47 automatic rifle fire in a sweep through seven locations in Diala Province, location of Baqouba.
Hogg said U.S. forces captured three wanted men -- a former Fedayeen general, a former Iraqi air force general and the second in charge of the Baath party in Diala Province. He would not give their names.
Since President Bush declared major combat over on May 1, 31 U.S. soldiers have been killed by enemy forces and scores have been wounded in a series of hit-and-run mortar, rocket-propelled grenade and smalls-arms attacks. Most have taken place in Baghdad and traditionally pro-Saddam Sunni Arab strongholds of central Iraq, known as the "Sunni Triangle."
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned Sunday that attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq may worsen this summer. "There's even speculation that during the month of July, which is an anniversary for a lot of Baathists events, we could see an increase in the number of attacks," Rumsfeld said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
"There's still a lot people from the Baathist and Fedayeen Saddam regime types who are there, who are disadvantaged by the fact that their regime has been thrown out and would like to get back, but they're not going to succeed," he said.
Several key anniversaries fall this week -- those of the July 17, 1968 coup by the Baath Party, the July 16, 1979 ascendance of Saddam to the presidency and the July 14, 1958 overthrow of the monarchy. U.S. military officials have received intelligence reports -- including letters addressed to community leaders urging attacks against Americans -- indicating that pro-Saddam and Islamist insurgents plan spectacular anti-U.S. actions to mark those days.
Warnings of attacks have mentioned uprisings in Hawijah, Baji, Kirkuk, Samarra and Balad. American forces said they believed the best defense was to launch a pre-holiday assault on potential insurgents.
"The goal is to knock the Baath Party and the Wahhabi elements off balance," said Lt. Col. Nat Sassaman, a Balad-area battalion commander. Wahhabism is the fundamentalist type of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, and in parts of central Iraq.
Army officers say many of the attacks in the past were carried out by young men paid about $153 by former regime security officials. The 4th Infantry's 3rd Brigade has begun offering $250 rewards for usable intelligence and $100 rewards for information leading to weapons caches.
America's elusive enemy in Iraq appears to have some level of organization. Using flares and small-arms fire, they have a developed a system to notify one another when the Americans are entering an area.
The three previous operations -- Peninsula Strike, Desert Scorpion and Sidewinder -- aimed at stemming the insurgency yielded mixed results. Hundreds of suspects were detained, but many were released for lack of evidence. Numerous large weapons caches were discovered, but the attacks against Americans continued.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)