- The Washington Times - Monday, June 16, 2003

From combined dispatches

BALAD, Iraq — A U.S. military convoy was ambushed near the restive Iraqi town of Balad yesterday and several soldiers were wounded as the U.S. forces began a widespread operation to hunt for Saddam Hussein loyalists blamed for recent attacks.

A crippled truck was smoldering on a highway, its canopy and tires ablaze, after apparently being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, Reuters correspondent Khaled Yacoub Oweis said. U.S. Apache helicopters buzzed overhead, hunting for the attackers near the town north of Baghdad, as tanks and armored personnel carriers surrounded the truck.

Troops pointed their guns toward the fields surrounding the highway. Soldiers said several casualties had been evacuated.

They said the convoy had been traveling from Baghdad to Balad, about 60 miles to the north. It was ambushed about 15 miles south of Balad.

U.S. troops last week began their biggest operation in Iraq since major combat was declared over, mounting a series of raids in the fertile plains around Balad near the Tigris River.

The U.S. military says it was targeting guerrillas loyal to Saddam who it blames for several deadly ambushes in the area. The army said in a statement Friday that it had killed 27 Iraqis who ambushed a tank patrol near Balad, but a military spokesman later said he could not confirm the death toll.

Yesterday, U.S. forces took into custody eight suspects believed to be leaders of the anti-American resistance in a swift operation in which dozens of homes were raided, but no casualties were reported.

With the expiration of a deadline for Iraqis to hand in heavy weapons, hundreds of U.S. troops fanned out across Iraq to seize arms and put down potential foes, even as they delivered food, fuel, medical supplies and teddy bears in what appeared to be an attempt to soothe the sting.

The troops, supported by helicopters and tanks, swooped on Fallujah and several other towns in the dead of night. They handcuffed and forced men to lie face down on floors and rousted women from their beds while searching for illegal arms.

The nationwide campaign, dubbed Operation Desert Scorpion, “is a combat operation to defeat the remaining pockets of resistance,” said Capt. John Morgan, a spokesman for the Army’s V Corps.

By the midnight Saturday close of a two-week nationwide amnesty for surrendering banned arms, only a fraction of the purported thousands of heavy weapons, antitank rockets and antiaircraft missiles had been turned in.

Three hours after the deadline, 1,300 troops of the 3rd Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade conducted the first raids, cordoning off Fallujah, a town of 200,000 about 35 miles west of Baghdad.

Acting on intelligence tips, they swept through 16 buildings at four locations, said Col. David Perkins, the brigade commanding officer. The troops found bombs, bomb-making materials and illegal communications equipment.

Col. Perkins said the operation was designed to limit inconvenience to residents. After daybreak, convoys of trucks bearing food, medicines, school supplies and toys rolled into town. These items had been requested by local leaders in meetings with brigade commanders.

Iraqis, however, complained of insensitive behavior by the troops during the raids, asserting that some people arrested had no involvement in attacks on U.S. soldiers.

“We got rid of one problem and now we have a bigger one,” said Jassim Mohammed, turning his face to wipe away tears. U.S. troops arrested two of his sons, Salah, 25, and Mohammed, 26. “Even Saddam never did this to us.”

Insurgents have fired on U.S. soldiers in the Fallujah area almost daily since they entered Iraq’s Sunni Muslim heartland on April 24. The troops there have killed at least 24 Iraqis and wounded 78, and the insurgents have killed four U.S. soldiers and wounded 21.

Residents and local leaders say the attackers are troublemakers from outside the area. Pentagon officials have said foreign volunteers, including Syrians, Saudis and Yemenis, are active in Iraq.

Last week, a coordinated air and ground strike killed about 70 insurgents, most of them foreigners, at a tent camp near the Syrian border. On Thursday, 74 persons suspected of being sympathizers of terror network al Qaeda were arrested near the northern city of Kirkuk, the military said.

The raids had been widely anticipated. On Saturday, warnings of the impending attack were broadcast from Fallujah’s mosques. When the raids began, some residents flashed porch lights or sounded sirens to warn about the approaching U.S. troops.

U.S. commanders have struggled to develop a strategy that allows them to deal with anti-American elements while simultaneously building good will with civilians.

While pursuing purported illegal weapons stockpiles, the United States increased its radio appeals for Iraqis involved in any such arms programs to surrender for trial, offering leniency for those who cooperate.

“It’s time to leave your hide-outs,” said an announcer on an AM radio station in Baghdad operated by the U.S. Army’s Psychological Operations personnel. “If you come voluntarily and give information about weapons of mass destruction and their launch vehicles, the United States will do its best to give you a just trial in accordance with the law.”

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