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U.S. Hunts for Militants North of Baghdad

U.S. Hunts for Militants North of Baghdad

Posted - Dec. 17, 2003 at 3:24 p.m.



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SAMARRA, Iraq (AP) -- Using sledgehammers, crowbars, explosives and armored vehicles, U.S. forces smashed down the gates of homes and the doors of workshops and junkyards Wednesday to attack the Iraqi resistance that has persisted despite the capture of Saddam Hussein.

Loud blasts mixed with the sound of women and children screaming inside the houses. An explosion at the gate of one compound shattered windows, cutting a 1-year-old baby with glass. U.S. medics treated the injury while other soldiers handcuffed four men, who were later released.

The raid, launched before dawn and lasting until midmorning, targeted the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad. U.S. officials say some 1,500 fighters operate in Samarra, making it one of the persistent hotspots in the so-called Sunni Triangle.

"Samarra has been a little bit of a thorn in our side," said Col. Nate Sassaman. "It hasn't come along as quickly as other cities in the rebuilding of Iraq. This operation is designed to bring them up to speed."

The coalition scored a major victory Saturday by nabbing Saddam, who Iraqi officials revealed Wednesday was currently being held in the Baghdad area. But violence has continued in the capital and in predominantly Sunni areas west and north of Baghdad, once Saddam's power base.

In the northern city of Mosul, assailants shot and killed a policeman Wednesday, police said. And Iraqi security forces there opened fire on pro-Saddam protesters, wounding nine, witnesses said.

In Baghdad, a fuel truck exploded after colliding with a bus at an intersection, killing 10 Iraqis and wounding 20 -- raising initial claims by Iraqi officials that it was a suicide bombing by Saddam loyalists. But U.S. officials later said the blast was an accident, not an attack.

In the Samarra raid by some 2,500 troops, dubbed Operation Ivy Blizzard, the 4th Infantry Division and Iraqi forces detained at least a dozen suspected guerrillas -- though others got away, apparently tipped off about the raid.

In the city's industrial zone, troops used even their Bradley fighting vehicles to break down the doors of warehouses, workshops and junkyards.

"Locksmiths will make a lot of money these days," said a U.S. soldier, laughing as he sat atop a Bradley.

The sweep came after U.S. troops on Tuesday snared a suspected rebel leader and 78 other people, all in one building near Samarra where they apparently were planning attacks. On Monday, guerrillas in the city ambushed an American patrol, sparking a battle in which soldiers killed 11 attackers.

"They've made a mistake to attack U.S. forces," Sassaman said. "No one knows the town better than we do. We're gonna clean this place."

With Saddam in custody, the most wanted Iraqi fugitive is Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a high-ranking member of the former regime thought to be organizing anti-U.S. attacks. But it was unclear whether U.S. officials think al-Douri is in the Samarra area.

In Wednesday's sweep, soldiers used satellite positioning devices to locate buildings pre-marked as targets.

As Apache helicopters flew overhead, troops downtown fanned out in squads of 14 to storm several walled residential compounds, using plastic explosives to break in.

At one home, an explosion ignited a small fire. Elsewhere, a suspect was punched in the head and a soldier said: "You're dead. You're dead."

Troops later moved on to the industrial area, where they found little. One military official said he suspected insurgents moved much of their equipment to farms outside town.

Sassaman said troops in Samarra seized four rocket-propelled grenade launchers and a dozen assault rifles, as well as bomb-making material.

Meanwhile, a member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council said the U.S. military is holding Saddam in the Baghdad area. U.S. officials have previously said the former dictator was at an undisclosed location in Iraq.

"He is still in greater Baghdad," said council member Mouwafak al-Rubaie. "Maybe he will stay there until he stands trial."

The council has established a war crimes tribunal and hopes to put him on trial for human rights abuses. The United Nations, the Vatican and many countries oppose putting Saddam on trial before any court that could sentence him to death -- and others have expressed worries Iraq's justice system cannot try him fairly.

Council member Adnan Pachachi said "all stages of the trial will be public." He added that international experts "are always welcome" because the tribunal allows for the appointment of foreign judges.

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

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