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Armitage Insists US Has Upper Hand in Iraq

Armitage Insists US Has Upper Hand in Iraq

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- A senior U.S. official insisted on Saturday that the U.S. military has the upper hand in the escalating war in Iraq, on a day when two paratroopers died in a roadside ambush and the international Red Cross said it was closing two main offices due to deteriorating security.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage described Iraq as a "war zone," but noted that "we have the momentum in this process."

"I'm absolutely convinced we have a very solid plan to go out and get these people who are killing us and killing Iraqis," he told reporters during a visit to Iraq.

The sharp rise in the number of attacks against the troops of the U.S.-led coalition and their allies in the Iraqi security services, and the guerrillas' apparent ability to strike at will has prompted fears that the initiative in the conflict is slipping from the coalition's hands.

During a news conference in the heavily guarded compound housing the Iraq's U.S.-led administration, Armitage appeared anxious to ease such fears.

"I'm pretty convinced after this short visit ... that we will take this fight to the enemy," he said.

Later Saturday, three detonations were heard from the direction of western Baghdad. It was not immediately possible to determine whether the blasts, which sounded like small-calibre mortar rounds, had caused any damage.

Traffic across the Jumhuriya Bridge over the Tigris River near the U.S. command compound known as the "Green Zone" was blocked by U.S. troops. For the first time since the end of major combat in May, U.S. jets and helicopters flew overhead through the night sky with their navigation lights turned off.

Two soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division died Saturday when a homemade bomb exploded beside their vehicle about in Fallujah, a center of Sunni Muslim resistance 40 miles west of Baghdad, the military said.

Their deaths brought to 34 the number of American soldiers who have died in Iraq this month.

In Geneva, the international Red Cross said Saturday it was temporarily closing its offices in Baghdad and Basra because of the security situation. The Red Cross had planned to cut back on foreign staff of 30 people after the Oct. 27 truck-bombing at its Baghdad office but wanted to keep the offices open with reduced staff.

"We decided that in view of an extremely dangerous and volatile situation that we would have to temporarily close our offices in Baghdad and Basra," said Florian Westphal, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Westphal said the organization was studying how to keep its work going on a reduced level throughout the country. He said the ICRC had decided against seeking protection from coalition forces -- which would undermine its policy of strict neutrality in world conflicts.

"We would run the risk that people on the ground would think, 'OK, because they walk around specifically with coalition force protection, this means that they are now allied and work together with the coalition,"' he told AP. "Obviously for our way of working we have to be neutral. There is just no way around it."

In Mosul, 250 miles north of Baghdad, witnesses said a vehicle carrying American soldiers was attacked with automatic weapons as it drove down a city street. The vehicle stalled and several wounded soldiers got out and fled on foot. Local people then set the vehicle ablaze.

"They (Americans) are occupying the world," said Shazad Ahmed, a resident who saw the attack. "What do you want the people to do? Kiss them?"

The city, which was once considered to be relatively free of guerrilla activity, has seen dozens of attacks on U.S. forces in recent weeks, indicating that the rebellion has now spread out of its original stronghold in the so-called Sunni Triangle north and west of Baghdad.

The military said that troops in Mosul recovered seven shoulder-launched SAM-7 Strela anti-aircraft missiles. Six were turned in by a citizen in exchange for a monetary reward, a statement said, while an infantry patrol found the seventh hidden in tall grass.

Patrols uncovered a weapons cache consisting of 333 hand grenades, 92 rocket-propelled grenades and two RPG launchers, and arrested seven men believed to have been involved in previous attacks.

The military also said that a man suspected of having served as one of Saddam's bodyguards was detained Saturday in the northern oil city of Kirkuk.

The crackdown came a day after a Black Hawk helicopter crashed near Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, killing all six soldiers aboard. The cause of the crash remains uncertain although the U.S. command said in a statement that initial findings "discount the use of surface-to-air missiles as a possible cause."

Late Friday, U.S. troops fired mortars around the crash site and Air Force jets dropped at least three 500-pound bombs on the same area. U.S. commanders said they were trying to warn the locals against supporting insurgents.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Colin Powell said in remarks published Saturday in the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat that the attacks on American troops in central Iraq represented a serious problem but not necessarily a "nightmare."

Powell said in an interview that it remained unclear who was behind the spate of attacks.

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

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