US Troops Smash Homes in Hunt for Iraqi Militants

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – U.S. troops have psyched up on a bizarre musical reprise from Vietnam war film “Apocalypse Now” before crashing into Iraqi homes to hunt gunmen, as Shi`ite Muslims rallied against the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

With the strains of Wagner`s “Ride of the Valkyries” still ringing in their ears and the clatter of helicopters overhead, soldiers rammed vehicles into metal gates and 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

U.S. officials blame the attacks on diehard Saddam loyalists. Many Iraqis say the resistance is fuelled by resentment at the occupation and the behaviour of U.S. troops.

“The Americans are occupiers and aggressors,” said Sayyid Ali, one of about 2,000 Shi`ites who protested outside the vast palace compound in Baghdad now used by Iraq`s U.S. 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 U.S. troops killed two Iraqis during a protest by stone-throwing former soldiers thrown out of work by a U.S. decree dissolving the Iraqi military.

Sour Perceptions

“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 United States 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.

U.S. President George W. Bush, floating a new explanation for the failure to find banned weapons, said suspected arms sites had been looted as Saddam`s government crumbled.

“For more than a decade, Saddam Hussein went to great lengths to hide his weapons from the world. And in the regime`s final days, documents and suspected weapons sites were looted and burned,” Bush said in his weekly radio address.

A U.S. treasury official attending a meeting organised by the World Economic Forum in Jordan for political and business leaders, said world donors must provide aid as well as debt relief to Iraq for postwar reconstruction.

Search for Saddam

The most important Iraqi captured by U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. military activity aimed at capturing the trio.

There was nothing secretive about Saturday`s robust sweep through Ramadi, 100 km (60 miles) west of Baghdad, by soldiers of the First Battalion of the 124th Infantry Regiment who psyched themselves up at a base on a musical moment redolent of Francis Ford Coppola`s 1979 film about the Vietnam war.

Hit-and-run strikes on U.S. troops have been concentrated in Sunni Muslim towns such as Ramadi west and north of Baghdad.

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 U.S. troops during their invasion.

The raid was part of Operation Desert Scorpion, launched on June 15 to crack down on militants and befriend civilians by helping with aid and reconstruction projects.

A U.S. military spokesman said on Saturday that 90 Desert Scorpion raids had captured 540 people.