- The Washington Times - Friday, October 31, 2003

UJA, Iraq — American soldiers yesterday cordoned off the village where Saddam Hussein was born, suspecting this dusty farming community of being a secret base for funding and planning assaults against coalition forces.

“There are ties leading to this village, to the funding and planning of attacks against U.S. soldiers,” said Lt. Col. Steve Russell, a battalion commander with the 4th Infantry Division, which is based in nearby Tikrit.

Elsewhere in Iraq, U.S. troops battled Iraqi rioters when a dispute over a marketplace exploded into anti-American fury in Abu Ghraib, just outside Baghdad.

Leaflets and rumored warnings called for a “Day of Resistance” today at the start of a three-day general strike to protest the U.S. presence. U.S. officials urged Americans in the Iraqi capital to “maintain a high level of vigilance.”

Two Iraqis were killed, and 17 others and two U.S. soldiers were reported wounded at the marketplace clashes, as Iraqi rioters waved portraits of Saddam and shouted “Allahu Akbar [God is great].”

A bomb exploded yesterday morning near an 82nd Airborne Division patrol outside Khaldiyah, west of Baghdad, killing one soldier and wounding four others, the U.S. military reported.

In Fallujah, also west of Baghdad and a center of anti-U.S. resistance, an explosion and fire struck the office of the mayor, who has cooperated with the U.S. occupation. In a melee that followed, one Iraqi was killed. Later in the day, U.S. troops came under attack at the same spot.

Three or four American soldiers were wounded in the northern city of Mosul late yesterday when assailants threw a grenade at them from a speeding car, Iraqi police said.

The operation in the village of Uja, 19 miles north of Baghdad, began before dawn with hundreds of U.S. troops and Iraqi police. They erected a fence of barbed wire, stretched over wooden poles, and laid spirals of razor wire around the village, a cluster of mud-and-brick homes set in orchards of pears and pomegranates about six miles south of Tikrit.

Checkpoints were set up at all roads leading into the village of an estimated 3,500 residents, many of them Saddam’s clansmen and distant relatives.

It appeared the operation was not aimed at catching Saddam but at identifying those who live here and making sure that outsiders are quickly spotted. All adults were required to register for identity cards that U.S. officials said would allow them “controlled access” in and out of the village.

“This is an effort to protect the majority of the population, the people who want to get on with their lives,” Col. Russell said. “What we have seen repeatedly month after month is not necessarily attacks against coalition forces in this village, but there are ties to the planning and organizing these attacks. That is not fair to the rest of this village.”

The intensive hunt for the deposed leader is spearheaded by the top secret Special Operations Task Force 20, and American officials in Iraq have said little about any progress. The United States has offered a $25 million reward for Saddam’s capture.

Much of the hunt for Saddam appears to be focused in the area around Tikrit, where Saddam and other key followers could find shelter among family and clansmen.

During the operation yesterday, Col. Russell said he did not know whether Saddam was directly involved in coordinating attacks.

“It’s hard to tell what exactly his [Saddams] role would be, if any,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. “Saddam Hussein is in a survival mode. He is no longer in power.”

Col. Russell noted that the village of Uja was unusual because so many key figures in the former government had roots in this area.

Among them is Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a longtime Saddam confidant whom U.S. officials suspect as a force behind some of the recent attacks. U.S. officials believe al-Douri has linked up with members of the Islamic extremist group Ansar al-Islam to stage attacks against coalition forces.

However, some sources familiar with the former Iraqi regime say al-Douri, who has leukemia, could be too ill to coordinate the attacks.

Despite strong support for Saddam in this area, there was no visible resistance to the American operation, and people lined up quietly outside a police station to register for ID cards.

“I chose right in coming here. We need the safety,” said Ahmed al-Naseri, who told reporters he was a cousin of Saddam’s. “We need freedom.”

Uja Police Chief Ahmed Hamza al-Naseri said the military operation took him by surprise.

“I didn’t know what was going on until I received a call in the middle of the night,” he said. “This is all new to the people of Uja. They may be afraid at first, but they will accept it.”

The police chief said he expected no trouble, and as an example to others, he was first to get an ID card.

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