Tikrit, Aug. 3 (Reuters): US soldiers raided homes and farmhouses in the hostile Sunni heartland around Baghdad today, detaining dozens of suspected Saddam Hussein loyalists and saying the net was closing on the deposed dictator himself.
Soldiers from the 3rd Armoured Cavalry Regiment, based in the restive towns of Falluja and Ramadi west of the capital in the “Sunni triangle”, mounted a series of raids, the army said.
“Twenty former regime loyalists, including a targeted leader, were captured,” a US military statement said.
Locals said 70-year-old farmer Hamad Antar was killed and three of his sons wounded by troops who opened fire on his car during one raid as he drove between his home and nearby fields. The US army said it had no information on the incident.
The military said the 4th Infantry Division, which polices a tense region north of Baghdad including Saddam’s home town of Tikrit, also staged several raids, capturing 26 including two suspected “mid-level former regime loyalists”. Troops also seized 162 hand grenades, nine rocket-propelled grenades, 10 AK-47 assault rifles, four blocks of dynamite and a heavy machinegun.
US officials blame die-hard Saddam loyalists and foreign Arab fighters for a guerrilla campaign against American troops that has killed 53 soldiers since Washington declared major combat over on May 1. They say attacks are becoming increasingly sophisticated — and increasingly deadly. US soldiers in Tikrit said that if they tracked down Saddam they wanted to capture him alive. “Clearly we’ll be going in to take him alive to extract the maximum intelligence,” Lieutenant Jason Price of the 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, said in Tikrit.
Colonel James Hickey, the pugnacious cavalry officer who commands the 4th Infantry’s 1st Brigade, said the fugitive former president was being forced into a corner. “If he stays stationary we’ll find him,” Hickey said in Tikrit. “If he tries to move, he runs the risk of running into one of our patrols.”
Flags missing from graves
Tempers flared as the two Iraqi flags covering the graves of Saddam Hussein’s sons were stolen in the night under the noses of US soldiers guarding the cemetery in the fallen dictator’s birthplace.
“Nobody here would have done such a thing. It is the Americans who have done that,” said Walid Jassem, the local grocer in a village where most people claim allegiance to Saddam’s family and were showered with luxury during his 24 years in power. The idea of US soldiers here in this bastion of the old regime burned the hearts of some. The fact they guarded the graves of Saddam’s male heirs was positively blasphemous. “I have not gone there and will not go there as long as the soldiers are there,” Jassem fumed.
US soldiers searched cars today as they left the grounds and said they had seen no one remove the Iraqi flags.