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Saddam Hid Recently in Tikrit, Officer Says

Saddam Hid Recently in Tikrit, Officer Says

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TIKRIT, Iraq (AP) -- Saddam Hussein has been hiding in his hometown Tikrit and is believed to be exerting influence within the resistance that has been killing American soldiers at a rate of nearly one every two days, a U.S. officer said Monday.

The American casualties continued, with one soldier killed and two wounded when attackers fired a rocket-propelled grenade at their patrol in Tikrit. A second soldier was killed and another wounded when their vehicle struck a land mine in Beiji, 120 miles north of Baghdad.

Meanwhile, U.S.-led coalition officials said they had made arrests in a suicide car bombing that shook central Baghdad on Sunday, killing at least six bystanders and wounding dozens of others.

U.S. troops have been struggling to put down an insurgent campaign that has targeted American forces and has increasingly turned to using dramatic suicide attacks -- disrupting efforts at rebuilding Iraq. The most recent deaths brought to 96 the number of U.S. soldiers known to have been killed in hostile action since May 1, when President Bush declared major combat over.

A top American officer in Tikrit told The Associated Press that Saddam likely has a "strong influence" on anti-U.S. guerrilla attacks in the area around the city.

"We have clear indication he has been here recently," Maj. Troy Smith, executive officer of the 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, told reporters.

"He could be here right now," Smith added. "At the least, he is maintaining a strong influence in the area."

Support for Saddam still runs deep in Tikrit and other parts of the so-called "Sunni triangle," a region north of Baghdad where Saddam's Baathist regime drew much of its power. Most of the attacks employ rocket propelled grenades or roadside bombs. Saddam's Fedayeen militia and his most loyal supporters are believed to be financing and organizing the attacks. The U.S. military says it has uncovered scores of bomb-making facilities and weapons caches in private homes across the Sunni region.

Saddam, who was born in a village on the southern outskirts of Tikrit, was last seen in Baghdad in early April as the city was falling to American forces. His sons Odai and Qusai were killed July 22 in the northern city of Mosul.

Smith did not elaborate on intelligence information that has led the military to conclude that Saddam has been in the Tikrit area but expressed confidence in the quality of the information.

"Where else would he go to?" Smith said. "He has family and tribal roots here."

Smith said some of the other key regime figures still at large could be in the Tikrit area. Of the 55 Iraqis on the coalition's most wanted list, 38 are in custody, 14 are at large and three are either dead or thought to be dead.

"We think they could still be around," he said. "They obviously have the money to pay the average poor Iraqi to shoot at coalition forces... We believe we are dealing with very few individuals here."

The American administrator in Iraq vowed to hunt down those responsible for Sunday's car bomb outside the Baghdad Hotel -- home to officials of the U.S.-led occupation authority and reportedly some members of Iraq's interim Governing Council.

It was the seventh fatal vehicle bombing in Iraq since early August. The bombings have killed more than 140 people, and so far none of the planners of any of the attacks has been found.

"We will work with the Iraqi police to find those responsible and bring them to justice," L. Paul Bremer said.

Coalition spokesman Charles Heatly said "there are some people in detention" after Sunday's attack but refused to elaborate.

Two cars exploded nearly simultaneously, and two drivers were killed but it was not clear if both were suicide attackers. Military spokesman Lt. Col. George Krivo said Monday the second car may have exploded when its fuel tank was ignited by the first blast.

At least one guard was reported among the six bystanders dead. One member of the 25-seat Governing Council, Mouwafak al-Rabii, told Al-Jazeera satellite television he suffered a slight hand injury.

The lunchtime attack sent terror-stricken Iraqis fleeing up Saadoun Avenue, over broken window glass from banks, restaurants and shops and past the bloodied bodies of injured. American helicopters and combat vehicles converged on the chaotic scene as black smoke from burning cars billowed over the central city.

The six victims and 32 injured reported at al-Kindi Hospital -- four in critical condition -- were all Iraqis, authorities said. The U.S. military said three Americans were slightly injured.

Along Saadoun Avenue, feelings ran high against the Americans and their inability to stop the bombings. As rubble burned, a crowd chanted slogans calling the U.S.-led regime a failure.

In other developments:

--Hundreds of thousands of Shiite Muslim pilgrims concluded a weekend of religious celebration in the holy city of Karbala, south of Baghdad. The festival was peaceful despite a fiery Friday sermon by hard-line cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who railed against the U.S. occupation and announced formation of his own Islamic "government."

--Members of a visiting U.S. congressional delegation expressed American determination to stick it out in Iraq. "We are here to stay until these people are ready to take over," said Rep. H. James Saxton, R-N.J., referring to members of Iraqi security forces with whom the delegation met.

-- An explosion on the outskirts of the southern city of Basra slightly injured a British soldier on Monday, the British military said, but it gave no details. Basra residents said the explosion occurred as the soldier's vehicle was passing a gasoline station.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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