| A sculpture at the reopened Hiwar gallery in the Warzeyah district of Baghdad. (AFP)
Baghdad, June 16 (Reuters): US troops scoured the hostile territory around Baghdad today for die-hard Saddam Hussein loyalists after guerrillas ambushed two US convoys in the latest of a recent spat of attacks on American forces.
US central command said it had launched a new mission, Operation Desert Scorpion, to hunt for pro-Saddam fighters who have mounted several deadly attacks in the restive towns and villages to the north and west of the Iraqi capital.
Troops would “identify and defeat selected Baath party loyalists, terrorist organisations and criminal elements while delivering humanitarian aid simultaneously”, it said. Iraqi residents in the restive towns say such operations would only serve to fuel anti-American anger.
There are also mounting calls in Iraq for occupying forces to leave. Yesterday, hundreds of people marched through Basra to demand that British forces running the city hand over power to an Iraqi government.
Around 40 US soldiers have been killed in hostile attacks and ambushes since the start of May, mostly in Baghdad and two nearby areas — to the west around Ramadi and Falluja, and to the north around Balad, Baquba and Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown.
The US said two convoys were ambushed yesterday near Balad, 90 km north of Baghdad.
In one ambush, a rocket-propelled grenade aimed at a US vehicle missed its target and hit a civilian bus.
“Units from Task Force Ironhorse returned fire to protect the convoy and the civilian bus,” it said. “The number of casualties on the civilian bus are not known at this time.”
In the second ambush, soldiers returned fire after they were attacked with rocket-propelled grenades at Dujail, near Balad. “The attackers fled the area,” an army statement said.
It made no mention of US casualties. Soldiers near Balad said yesterday that several casualties had been evacuated after an ambush that left a US truck ablaze.
In Khaldiya, around 80 km west of Baghdad, US troops staged a dawn raid on several houses. Soldiers said the raid came after an army patrol guarding an ammunition dump was attacked the previous evening with rocket-propelled grenades.
US army infantry soldiers and military police said they had arrested nine men and seized explosives and guns, after helicopters saw several ammunition boxes on rooftops.
Desert Scorpion follows last week’s Operation Peninsula Strike — the biggest US operation since the end of major combat in Iraq — in which troops in armoured convoys, boats and helicopters raided suspected militia hideouts around Balad.