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Iraq arms depot disaster spills out

Baghdad, June 30 (Reuters): US forces detained 180 people in raids to stamp out resistance to their occupation in Iraq, the military said today, as local residents reported a huge weekend blast at an arms depot killed at least 30 looters.

Scores of people were hurt in the explosion at a munitions store in a desert area 260 km northeast of Baghdad today, residents said, adding that U.S. forces arrested several looters afterwards and handed them to Iraqi police.

US forces are trying to crack down on a massive upsurge in general crime, including widespread looting, which followed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein on April 9.

Assailants fired a rocket-propelled grenade last night at an army patrol in the restive town of Falluja, around 50 km west of Baghdad, wounding a journalist who is now in stable condition in hospital, a statement said.

Three people were killed soon afterwards when their pickup truck drove into a military vehicle helping to evacuate the reporter from the area, the US central command said. It did not identify the journalist or the dead people.

US troops have come under almost daily attack in recent weeks from rocket-propelled grenades, hand grenades and automatic rifle fire as they try to bring order to Iraq after toppling Saddam Hussein and his government on April 9.

At least 22 US and six British soldiers have been killed by hostile fire since US President George W. Bush declared major combat in Iraq over on May 1.

US officers blame Saddam loyalists. Many Iraqis say some attackers are not connected to Saddam, but feel strongly their country should not be occupied and that the occupiers have failed to provide basic services and security. The US military, which has around 156,000 soldiers in Iraq, has launched several operations to stamp out the attacks. The latest, Operation Desert Sidewinder, began yesterday with infantry soldiers backed by aircraft and armoured vehicles.

Troops from the US army’s high-tech Fourth Infantry Division detained 32 people and seized weapons including 10 AK- 47 rifles and a mortar in the mission targeting areas north and east of Baghdad, once a bedrock of support for Saddam.

The arms haul appeared meagre in a country where most homes have at least one weapon. The area was quiet today afternoon.

Meanwhile, troops from the First Armoured Division detained 148 people in Baghdad as part of Operation Desert Scorpion, which is aimed at stopping guerrilla attacks. Central command also said troops had conducted 374 joint patrols with Iraqi police, resulting in 319 arrests for criminal offences.

News of the arrests came as Amnesty International expressed concern at the treatment of detainees in Iraq and called for an end to a ban on them receiving visitors.

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