Red Cross pulls out as more US soldiers fall to guerrillas

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Two US paratroopers were killed and a third was wounded yesterday when a homemade bomb exploded beside their vehicle 40 miles west of Baghdad. The deaths bring to 34 the number of American troops killed this month.

Already, in the first eight days of November, the toll is three more troops than were killed during the whole of September. A total of 42 soldiers died in October.

In a move that further emphasises the increasing dangers of the "mission accomplished" period, the International Red Cross announced yesterday that it was "temporarily" closing its Baghdad and Basra offices because of deteriorating security. For the moment, the organisation will keep its office in Irbil, in the Kurdish-dominated northern region of Iraq.

Under the Geneva Convention on the conduct of war, the Red Cross meets prisoners in private to check on their condition and exchange family messages. It also observes conditions in countries under occupation and, if necessary, reminds the occupying power of its obligations to protect and assist the local population. This is in addition to its provision of emergency medical aid, water and sanitation, and advice, especially in Iraq, on how to avoid landmines and other explosives.

Other relief organisations have also been reviewing their staffing or cutting back on their presence in Iraq.

Yesterday, in response to the downing of a Black Hawk helicopter on Friday, when six soldiers died, there was intense activity among US troops. After dark on Friday, F-16 fighter-bombers swooped over Tikrit, dropping 226kg bombs near the crash site. Then raids began around the town, which is regarded as a hotbed of anti-US attacks.

Troops backed by armour and attack helicopters destroyed several abandoned houses which the US military believed had been used by insurgents. Major Josslyn Aberle, of the 4th Infantry Division, called the US action a "show of force" designed to destroy guerrilla hideouts.

The US army said the raids were part of "Operation Ivy Cyclone" - a drive to root out guerrillas in the hostile territory around Tikrit. It said 16 people had been detained in the past 24 hours. Of five people killed, three were shot dead after American troops moved near to where Iraqis had been firing rockets; one was killed in a gun battle near Balad; and an Iraqi was killed after he fired on troops who caught him trying to string a decapitation wire across a road, the army said.

The US military also said it had seized a large cache of mortars and rocket-propelled grenades hidden in a tomb in Samarra, between Baghdad and Tikrit. The 101st Airborne Division had recovered seven surface-to-air missiles in Dohuk, northern Iraq. In an early-morning raid south of Kirkuk, the army said, one of Saddam's former bodyguards was held.

In Mosul, 250 miles north of Baghdad, guerrillas fired six mortar rounds at a police station. The city, which was once considered to be relatively free of guerrilla activity, has seen dozens of attacks on US forces in recent weeks, indicating that the rebellion has spread north from its original stronghold in the so-called Sunni triangle north and west of Baghdad.

Troops in Mosul recovered seven shoulder-launched SAM-7 Strela anti-aircraft missiles, according to the army. Six were turned in by a citizen in exchange for money, a statement said, while an infantry patrol found the seventh hidden in grass. Patrols also found a weapons cache consisting of 333 hand grenades, 92 rocket-propelled grenades and two RPG launchers. They also arrested seven men believed involved in previous attacks.

US military staff said that a man suspected of having served as one of Saddam's bodyguards was detained yesterday in the northern oil city of Kirkuk.

The helicopter crash on Friday, with all six US soldiers killed, capped the bloodiest seven days in Iraq for Americans since the fall of Baghdad. The cause of the crash remains uncertain although several US officers believe the helicopter was shot down. Officers have long been concerned about the safety of aviation because of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of shoulder-fired missiles still missing in Iraq after the collapse of Saddam's regime in April.

Last Sunday, insurgent gunners brought down a CH-47D Chinook transport helicopter just outside Fallujah, west of Baghdad, killing 16 Americans in the bloodiest single strike against US forces since the war began on 20 March. On 25 October, insurgents shot down a Black Hawk over Tikrit, injuring one crewman. An Apache attack helicopter was also shot down in June in the western desert, but the two members of its crew escaped injury.