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Saddam net tightens, US medic killed

Baghdad, June 19 (Reuters): The capture of Saddam Hussein’s closest aide tightened the net on the missing Iraqi leader today as a US medic was killed and two were wounded when their ambulance was ambushed south of Baghdad.

The US military said a rocket-propelled grenade had hit an ambulance of the 804th Medical Brigade as it was transporting a patient injured in an unrelated incident. The US drive to track down Saddam, who disappeared after Baghdad fell on April 9, may have moved into a new gear now that his secretary, national security adviser and senior bodyguard, Abid Hamid Mahmud al-Tikriti, is in American hands.

Tikriti, captured on Monday, was the Ace of Diamonds on a pack of cards issued to US troops hunting 55 most wanted Iraqis, and was the topmost fugitive netted to date. Only Saddam and his sons, Uday and Qusay, outrank him on the list.

Tikriti was “regarded by some as the real number two figure in the Iraqi leadership”, a British government report published before the war said. “He controls all access to Saddam — possibly with the exception of Qusay and Uday Hussein — and has the ability to override government decisions.”

Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at Britain’s Warwick University, said Tikriti might have been betrayed by another senior official, which would indicate that “the rolling-up of the final remnants” of Saddam’s apparatus was under way.

“But if they bought him — if he sold himself for a retirement, immunity and a house in California — then this is the end of the old regime,” he said. Tikriti would be able to lead US forces to Saddam or weapons of mass destruction.

The US and Britain have failed to find either since they invaded Iraq on March 20.

US forces have come under frequent attack. With the ambulance ambush, they have lost three dead in as many days in and around Baghdad, where tension notched up after troops shot dead two former Iraqi soldiers during a protest yesterday.

Cursing America, scores of mourners fired rifles in the air at the funeral of one of them, Tareq Mohammed, in defiance of a US ban on the carrying of weapons. “America is the enemy of Allah,” several hundred people chanted after mosque prayers for the former air force non-commissioned officer. US troops kept out of the area.

“They deprived us of our jobs and have not offered us new ones,” said one mourner, Khazaal Qatie, of the US move to disband Saddam’s armed forces, security services and two ministries, throwing 400,000 people out of work.

A US military spokesman said soldiers would not have opened fire if yesterday’s protest had remained peaceful.

“Every death is regrettable. We make every effort that’s possible to make sure that it doesn’t happen. But we are in a combat zone and we prepare accordingly,” he said.

Another spokesman said the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority had been reviewing the policy of giving sacked soldiers a one-off redundancy payment of just $100. “We expect that it will actually be a much more generous settlement than that,” he said.

Asked about the killing of the two protesters, a UN spokeswoman said: “We denounce the excessive use of force.”

Iraq’s first opinion poll confirmed that Baghdadis are fed up with US troops, but don’t want them to leave just yet.

Published today, it said around 73 per cent felt the Americans had not brought security to the capital, but only 17 per cent said they should leave forthwith. Around 51 per cent wanted them to stay until a permanent government can be elected.

The survey, conducted by the independent Iraqi Institute of Strategic Studies, polled 1,100 people between June 8 and 10.

Iraq’s main oil pipeline to Turkey was up and running again after a fire and explosions last week, a senior official said.

Turkey reopened its main border crossing with northern Iraq to commercial traffic today after a 24-hour closure, witnesses said.

Ankara, blaming what it called disruptions on the Iraqi side of the border, shut the Habur crossing yesterday to all vehicles apart from those on official UN business or supplying US forces based in northern Iraq. Turkish officials have not elaborated on the reason for yesterday’s closure.

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