| US soldiers patrol a street in Ramadi, 80 km west of Baghdad, on Saturday. (AP)
Near Balad (Iraq), June 15 (Reuters): Guerrillas ambushed a US convoy in the hostile region north of Baghdad today, wounding several soldiers, as a new US mission was launched to hunt for Saddam Hussein loyalists blamed for recent attacks.
A crippled US truck smouldered on the highway south of the restive town of Balad after the ambush, its tyres and canopy ablaze. Apache helicopters buzzed overhead, searching for the attackers. Tanks and armoured vehicles surrounded the truck. Troops trained their guns at the fields around the road. Soldiers said several casualties had been evacuated. They said the convoy had been travelling from Baghdad to Balad, about 90 km to the north. It was attacked about 20 km south of Balad.
The ambush came as the US military launched a new mission, Operation Desert Scorpion, to root out Saddam loyalists after a spate of attacks that have killed about 40 US soldiers since major combat was declared over on May 1.
The new US military sweep followed last week’s Operation Peninsula Strike — the biggest such US manoeuvre in Iraq since May 1 — when a series of raids were mounted in the fertile plains around Balad near the Tigris river. The army said in a statement on Friday that it had killed 27 Iraqis who ambushed a tank patrol near Balad, but a military spokesman later said he could not confirm the death toll. Locals said five civilians had been killed in the incident.
The US military has said that some 400 Iraqis were detained in the operation around Balad, which began last Monday and was winding down by the weekend. It said about 60 were still in custody, and four US soldiers were wounded during the operation, along with two Iraqi “hostile civilians”.
Angry locals said US troops had ransacked houses and assaulted residents. They said the operation would only serve to fuel hostility towards the US occupiers of Iraq.
The US military said Operation Desert Scorpion is aimed to win hearts and minds as well as hunt guerrillas. A Central Command statement said it was “designed to identify and defeat selected Baath party loyalists, terrorist organisations and criminal elements while simultaneously delivering humanitarian aid”.
In the Sunni town of Falluja, 70 km west of Baghdad, troops searched some houses overnight, but by morning they were distributing food and supplies. Hostility to the Americans is widespread in Falluja after a series of clashes, but the town was quiet today with a low-key army presence.
The attacks have been concentrated in Baghdad and two nearby areas — to the west around Ramadi and Falluja, and to the north around Balad, Baquba and Tikrit, Saddam’s home town. Many locals in the troubled areas say they have no love for Saddam but that anger is mounting towards US soldiers. “We were oppressed under Saddam and now we are oppressed under the Americans,” a trader in Falluja said.
US General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a television interview that Saddam was probably still alive and several groups were behind recent attacks.
“I think, probably the majority opinion is that he is alive and it’s something that has to be dealt with,” Myers told the US Fox News Channel yesterday.
Today marked the end of a two-week amnesty for Iraqis to hand in heavy weapons without punishment. Iraqis caught with banned weapons without a permit will now face a fine and a jail term of up to a year.
Many Iraqis have said they dare not give up their guns till security is restored following the anarchy after Saddam’s overthrow on April 9.