Baghdad, June 21 (Reuters): US troops psyched up on Wagner crashed into Iraqi homes to hunt for gunmen today, as Shias rallied against the US occupation of Iraq.
Ramming their vehicles into metal gates, hundreds of troops raided houses in the western city of Ramadi after sunrise as part of a drive to quell a spate of attacks on US forces.
A previously unknown group, calling itself the Iraqi National Front of Fedayeen, vowed to intensify assaults on American troops until they leave Iraq.
A man with his face swathed in a red-and-white headscarf read the threat on a videotape received by Lebanon’s LBC television. There was no way to verify its authenticity.
“If they want their soldiers to be safe, they must leave our pure land,” the man said, disavowing any link to Saddam Hussein. He was flanked by three masked men with weapons.
Iraqi assailants have killed 17 US soldiers since major combat was declared over on May 1, three weeks after the fall of Baghdad ended 24 years of Saddam Hussein’s iron rule.
US officials blame the attacks on diehard Saddam loyalists. Many Iraqis say the resistance is fuelled by resentment at the occupation and the behaviour of US troops. “The Americans are occupiers and aggressors,” said Sayyid Ali, one of about 2,000 Shias who protested outside the vast palace compound in Baghdad now used by Iraq’s US rulers. “They were supposed to free us from the oppressor, now they are only occupying us,” he said. “We want to form a national government. We want freedom and justice.”
There was no repeat of the violence that erupted on the same spot on Wednesday, when US troops killed two Iraqis during a protest by stone-throwing former soldiers thrown out of work by a US decree dissolving the Iraqi military.
“Under Saddam, we had no medicine. It was all in this palace,” said Mohammed Obeid, sheltering from the fierce sun. “Now it’s the same, except the Americans are in the palace.”
The US and Britain say their forces will stay put until they can restore security, revive the economy and arrange a transition to an elected, sovereign Iraqi government. However, they have failed to find Saddam or his alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction which they cited as their main justification for going to war on March 20.
The most important Iraqi captured by US troops yet has told his interrogators that the deposed leader and his two sons survived the war, the New York Times reported.
The paper quoted unnamed defence department officials as saying the information came from Abid Hamid Mahmud al-Tikriti, captured earlier this week, fourth on a US list of most wanted Iraqis after Saddam and his sons Uday and Qusay.
They said Mahmud’s tips had ignited an intense burst of clandestine US military activity aimed at capturing the trio.
There was nothing secretive about today’s robust sweep through Ramadi, 100 km west of Baghdad, by soldiers of the First Battalion of the 124th Infantry Regiment.
As helicopters clattered overhead, they began their hunt with their ears still ringing from a blast of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries played at their base nearby in a bizarre musical association with the Vietnam war movie Apocalypse Now.
Hit-and-run strikes on US troops have been concentrated in Sunni towns such as Ramadi west and north of Baghdad.
“They’re getting too powerful,” Lt Col Hector Mirabile, said. “It’s time for them to stop.”
One unit of troops dragged half-a-dozen men from their homes as women wailed. They seized weapons and a computer disk. Officers said they aimed to capture five men from the Fedayeen paramilitary force, which put up some of the fiercest resistance to US troops during their invasion.