US troops ambushed amid drive to extinguish resistance

Soldiers are injured in guerrilla attack as Americans tackle renewed loyalist activity that has claimed 40 soldiers since 1 May
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The Independent Online

Guerrilla fighters ambushed an American convoy in a hostile region north of Baghdad yesterday, wounding several soldiers, as the US army stepped up search-and-destroy operations against fighters loyal to Saddam Hussein.

The convoy was ambushed as the US military launched Operation Desert Scorpion, a mission intended to root out Saddam loyalists - including suspected foreign fighters - after a spate of attacks that have killed more than 40 American soldiers since major combat was declared over on 1 May.

On the road south of the town of Balad a crippled American lorry was left smouldering after the ambush. Apache helicopters buzzed overhead, searching for the attackers while tanks and armoured vehicles surrounded the lorry. Soldiers said several casualties had been rescued. The attack happened as the convoy travelled from Baghdad to Balad, about 60 miles to the north. It came under attack about 12 milessouth of its destination.

As the US army continued its sweep through central Iraq yesterday, sand-coloured tanks and armoured vehicles crowded the roads north of Baghdad, in an attempt to stamp out Iraqi resistance. But the effort to disarm the Iraqis, who traditionally own weapons, is proving less than successful with only 700 guns out of an estimated five million in the country being handed in under an amnesty that has just ended.

The lumbering American armoured columns, supported by helicopters, seem out of all proportion to the threat of attack. At one moment yesterday the army was claiming to have detained 74 suspected members of al-Qa'ida south of Kirkuk, but later decided they had no connection with the organisation.

Arrests are often made on vague or tainted information. In Baquba, a fruit-growing town 30 miles north-west of Baghdad, two queues had formed yesterday at the local police station. One consisted of informers denouncing members of the former regime and the other of relatives of detainees trying to find out where they were being held.

"The problem is that anybody can tell the Americans that a man is an Ali Baba - a looter - just because they have some money," complained Salman Shamar, who is vainly trying to find two of his cousins at the 4th Infantry Division's base inside an old Iraqi air base near the town.

He was not having much success. American soldiers said he should inquire at the police station for his relatives. He said he had just been there and had been told to go the base. "We don't know what those idiots are doing over there at the police station. We don't have a list of detainees here," said an exasperated US soldier at the entrance to the base.

There are still people who sympathise with the old regime. On the wreckage of an Iraqi armoured vehicle beside the road somebody had written in white paint the slogan: "Hell with Saddam is better than paradise with the Americans."

Unfortunately for Iraqis, life under US occupation is very far from paradise. As temperatures rose in Baghdad over the weekend to nearly 40C (104C), some districts of the city had only an hour of electricity. Demand has soared because of the use of air conditioners.

The American military sweeps are accompanied by an episodic "hearts-and-minds" campaign orchestrated by the army's Psychological Warfare Unit. US soldiers were distributing coloured leaflets yesterday showing a picture of Iraqi children dutifully sweeping the streets under the watchful eye of an American Humvee armoured car.

Angry locals said troops had ransacked houses and assaulted residents. They said the operation would only serve to fuel hostility towards the US occupiers of Iraq. The military said its Operation Desert Scorpion was intended to win the confidence of local people as well as hunt guerrillas.

Sunday 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 complained that they dare not give up their guns until security is restored.

The United States said that during the amnesty Iraqis handed in 123 pistols, 76 semi-automatic rifles, 435 automatic rifles, 46 machine-guns, 11 anti-aircraft weapons and 381 grenades and bombs - a drop in Iraq's ocean of weaponry.