Tikrit, Sept. 19 (Reuters): US forces captured nearly 60 suspected Iraqi guerrillas in a night-long battle near Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit after an ambush which killed three American soldiers, the military said today.
Backed by attack helicopters, US troops battled guerrillas until first light after the 4th Infantry Division soldiers were ambushed and killed in one of a series of coordinated attacks east and west of the Tigris river late yesterday.
“It seemed to be coordinated,” Colonel James Hickey, commander of US troops in the area, said. “We saw action from the west and east side of Tikrit. That is unusual.” It was one of the deadliest attacks on US soldiers which have been concentrated in the so-called “Sunni Triangle”.
Fighting began at 1600 GMT yesterday when assailants in a pick-up truck fired on US troops near Awja, the village south of Tikrit where Saddam was born. The infantry unit responded with mortar and machinegun fire, Hickey said. Two US soldiers wounded in the ambush were raced in a Humvee all-terrain vehicle to Saddam’s former palace in Tikrit, now a U.S. military base. They were stretchered into a field hospital, leaving pools of blood in the back of the vehicle. Simultaneously, a US army camp nearby came under attack and returned fire. Just fifteen minutes later, a patrol was hit with small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades, killing the three soldiers.
The ambush brought to 76 the number of US soldiers killed in guerrilla attacks since major combat operations were declared over on May 1 after the US-led invasion which ousted Saddam.
Major Josslyn Aberle said US forces encircled Awja, captured nearly 60 suspected Iraqi fighters and a truck full of machineguns, AK-47 rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition.
“This is the place where Saddam Hussein has his closest familial ties,” said Aberle. “We believe we now have those responsible for the attacks on our soldiers in custody.” Hickey said the apparent coordination of the attacks marked a change in tactics for the anti-American fighters.
US forces had been tipped off yesterday that attacks were planned and had set up checkpoints and strengthened troop numbers ready to sweep the area. After the ambush, Apache helicopters fired on adobe houses and farm buildings as suspected guerrillas ran for cover.
The pick-up truck involved in the shooting was followed back to a house where 11 people were arrested after a shoot-out.