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TIKRIT, Iraq (AP) -- Saddam Hussein's last defense minister surrendered Friday to an American commander, and U.S. troops backed by helicopters and armored vehicles fought an overnight battle near Tikrit after coming under a coordinated attack that killed three soldiers and wounded two.
Though Americans have been the targets of near-daily attacks, the battle in and around the village of Uja -- Saddam's birthplace -- was unusual because of its intensity and length. The fighting lasted from 8 p.m. Thursday until daybreak Friday, the military said.
The violence came as U.S. troops claimed a victory in their effort to track down remnants of Saddam's regime. Former Gen. Sultan Hashim Ahmad, Iraq's last defense minister, surrendered after weeks of negotiations.
Dawood Bagistani, who arranged the surrender to Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, said Ahmad was handed over "with great respect" and was with his family at the time.
Bagistani said the American military had promised to remove Ahmad's name from the list of 55 most-wanted, meaning he would not face indefinite confinement and possible prosecution.
Ahmad, the eight of hearts in the deck of playing cards of Iraqi fugitives, was no. 27 on the most-wanted list. Thirty-eight of that group are now in custody and 14 remain at large. Three are either dead or thought to be dead.
The special treatment for Ahmad could be an effort to defuse the guerrilla-style attacks that are taking a toll on U.S. soldiers. Many of the attackers are thought to be former soldiers in Saddam's army, and seeing their former military leader well-treated by the Americans might encourage them to abandon their insurgency.
In what the commander of the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade called a "coordinated attack," Saddam loyalists armed with rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns and assault rifles attacked two operating bases on the western bank of the Tigris River and ambushed a patrol on its east side.
Three U.S. soldiers were killed and two were wounded in the ambush at Uja, five miles south of the center of Tikrit, said Col. James Hickey, the 1st Brigade commander.
Two soldiers who were brought to a medical station in a blood-soaked vehicle were listed in stable condition, Hickey said.
He would not comment on Iraqi casualties but said 40 men of "military age" were arrested.
"We have under control the individuals who attacked our patrol," Hickey said. "We fought a battle throughout the night and well into first light."
The fighting took place among mud and brick houses that line the Tigris and among the hamlets that spread outwards from downtown Tikrit.
"We repositioned ourselves and immediately returned fire and counterattacked with ground and air forces and mechanized infantry," Hickey said.
He said the attack showed remarkable coordination.
"It is unusual. We have seen instances of coordinated attacks two times in the past out of the scores of ambushes. But this one was coordinated and this something that worrying us and we are paying attention to it," Hickey said.
On Wednesday, Al-Arabiya television broadcast an audiotape purportedly by Saddam, calling on Iraqis to step up assaults on U.S. troops.
Numerous tips have led to scores of overnight raids around Tikrit and the military said the operations have led to a decrease in the number of attacks, mostly carried out with rockets and homemade bombs.
Hickey said the military had received some warning that an attack was imminent and had increased it alert level. He said the large number of Iraqis detained was a direct consequence of the warning.
"Our reaction was faster than anticipated. They were sealed off," he said.
The attackers, he added, were what remained of Saddam loyalists carrying out attacks in the area.
"It's a handful, a rearguard that's attempting to maintain a degree of political relevance here. We're going to finish these guys off," Hickey said.
The Tikrit attacks took place hours after insurgents in central Iraq ambushed two U.S. military convoys with remote-controlled bombs and opened fire on one of them. Two U.S. soldiers were wounded in the three-hour gunbattle in the town of Khaldiyah, 50 miles west of Baghdad, the military said.
Shortly afterward and nine miles to the west, a second roadside bomb hit a military convoy of three Humvees and a truck, according to witnesses. One Humvee was engulfed in flames.
An Italian Foreign Ministry official said in Rome that U.S. soldiers in northern Iraq on Thursday fired into a car carrying the Italian official heading U.S. efforts to recover looted antiquities, killing the man's Iraqi interpreter. The Italian, Pietro Cordone, was unhurt in the shooting at a roadblock between Mosul and Tikrit, the Foreign Ministry official said.
The Foreign Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it appeared the car's driver did not understand the signals that the American troops were giving, and that the American's didn't understand what the car was trying to do.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)