US troops in new drive to crush Iraqi resistance

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American forces in Iraq launched a new offensive yesterday aimed at crushing the resistance fighters whose attacks on US and British troops have claimed lives almost every day.

With the US military death toll since the beginning of the war in Iraq having topped 200, soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division led more than 20 simultaneous pre-dawn raids on sites between Baghdad and Samarra, about 75 miles north of the capital.

The US military claimed to have captured more than 60 suspected guerrilla fighters, as well as weapons and military documents. The operation, called Desert Sidewinder, is expected to last several days.

Despite growing doubts about the ability of the US-British forces to impose order on Iraq, much less oversee a peaceful transition to a new democratic government, military commanders on the ground nevertheless insisted that the new crackdown on insurgents, the third of its kind in recent weeks, would be effective in combating what a spokeswoman described as "Baath party loyalists and terrorists".

Paul Bremer, the US civilian administrator of Iraq, said the main problem for allied forces was the uncertainty over the fate of Saddam Hussein, rather than any broader discontent with the Anglo-American military presence.

"I think it is important that we either catch him or kill him [Saddam]," Mr Bremer told the BBC.

"There is no doubt that the fact that we have not been able to show his fate allows the remnants of the Baath regime to go around the bazaars and villages and say Saddam will come back so do not co-operate with the coalition."

A growing number of voices, however, is suggesting that it will take far more than that to establish stability.

In the United States, two senior Democratic congressmen led calls yesterday to establish a new multinational peace-keeping force in Iraq that would both relieve the pressures on American and British troops now in place and also prevent further stigmatisation of the Americans as enemies of the Iraqis.

"I want to see French, German, I want to see Turkish patches on people's arms sitting on the street corners, standing there in Iraq," said Joseph Biden, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has just returned from Iraq. "We've got to get over this ideological fixation ... of Mr Rumsfeld [the Defence Secretary] and [Vice-President] Cheney of not letting the Europeans and Nato come in."

Senator Biden said as many as 60,000 international troops were needed, an estimate echoed by a fellow Democratic senator, Christopher Dodd. "I don't think we have months. I think we've got weeks to turn this around," Mr Dodd told NBC television. "And the people on the ground know it. Our military people are exhausted."

There was no let-up in the bad news for US forces over the weekend. On Saturday, the remains of two soldiers who had gone missing from their post in Balad, 25 miles north of Baghdad, were recovered a few miles away. Their deaths brought to 63 the number of US troops killed since George Bush declared on 1 May that the war was over.

Yesterday, two US soldiers were wounded and an Iraqi civilian was killed in a bomb attack on a US convoy heading towards Baghdad international airport. A US patrol was also attacked with rocket- propelled grenades near Khaldiyah, west of Baghdad, although there were no apparent deaths or injuries on either side in that incident.

The latest incidents were part of a pattern whereby US and British troops have been fired on, shot and attacked in bomb and grenade assaults. Although the armed resistance is organised by relatively small groups in specific areas, it nevertheless reflects a general discontent with what many Iraqis see as a hostile occupation, not the transition to true democracy that American officials have promised.

Mr Bremer did his best to defend the US presence in his interview with the BBC, saying 240 hospitals and 95 per cent of health clinics were now operating across the country, and that Baghdad now had 18 to 20 hours of electricity a day. The lack of power and water has fuelled some of the strongest grievances in recent weeks.

But Mr Bremer acknowledged that there was a long way to go. "Am I satisfied? No," he said. "We will do our best and we will succeed. I do not know when that will be."