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Iraq: U.S. Troops Accused Of Being Heavy-Handed In Their Search For Terrorists

In Iraq, U.S. troops continue to raid the homes and hideouts of suspected loyalists of deposed President Saddam Hussein, searching for weapons and the individuals who are organizing or financing the continuing attacks against coalition soldiers. Despite the 1 May announcement of the end of major combat operations in Iraq, 113 U.S. troops have died in attacks in the past six months. An RFE/RL correspondent, who was embedded with U.S. forces in Iraq earlier this week, went along on one such raid in the town of Samara, near Tikrit, and files this report.

Samara, Iraq; 28 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Acting on a tip from a local resident, a convoy of some 20 U.S. Army vehicles from the 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, headed to the town of Samara from Tikrit, the hometown of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Supported by members of the new Iraqi police force, the troops surrounded three large villas in Samara and knocked on the gates. After a couple of minutes, the soldiers were allowed inside by the residents.

The soldiers overturned furniture and emptied drawers as they searched for illegal weapons or large amounts of cash.

Many of those who were inside the homes at the time of the raid were women and small children, who became frightened at the sight of the heavily armed strangers. While making a mess of the homes, the troops behaved politely to the occupants and did not break anything during their search.

During the raid, a U.S. Army soldier who asked that his name not be used told RFE/RL, "Right now, we just found several small-arms weapons, an AK-47 [Kalashnikov] and magazines and ammunition. They are allowed to have one weapon in their house to defend their house with. Obviously, not all of this."

The troops also confiscated several portraits of Hussein, as well as magazines with the former president's picture on the covers.

The Samara raid lasted about an hour. The troops detained one suspect for questioning, but no large cache of weapons or cash was found.

U.S. Lieutenant Colonel John Poinder led the raid in Samara. He admitted the mission wasn't as successful as he had hoped but said it might result in some important leads.

"Well, we thought there were some large amounts of cash that were being used to fund some of the attacks on the Iraqi infrastructure and the coalition. So, we didn't get [cash], but we did get one of the two targeted men that we were looking for. We detained him, and we will question him. He is suspected of guarding large amounts of cash that were used in anti-coalition activities," Poinder said.

U.S. officers told RFE/RL they have credible information that Hussein loyalists have huge sums of money and are paying poor Iraqis in cash for setting off roadside bombs or for other attacks targeting U.S. troops.

The operation in Samara took place in the middle of the day. The street outside the three villas was full of curious kids, as well as frightened and angry Iraqis.

One of those watching outside was Omar, an Iraqi engineer in his 30s. He told RFE/RL that he is angry at U.S. troops for barging into private homes because of a tip they may have received. He says he is especially infuriated about reports that U.S. troops are confiscating personal belongings.

"The raids are terrorizing the Iraqi people," he says. "Mr. Bush promised us freedom. We haven't seen the freedom he promised us. They confiscate belongings from houses. The American troops take money from the houses. Taking arms is good -- OK, let them take [that]. But confiscating our belongings is illegal. We will sue them in international courts for what they are doing," Omar said.

While it's possible these raids could someday result in the capture of Hussein himself, Major Robert Isabella -- press officer for the 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division -- told RFE/RL that U.S. troops are more concerned with knocking out the middle- and lower-level supporters of Hussein's former regime.

"It will be a good day when we get Saddam, but equally if not more important is taking out -- kind of like, from the roots -- the lower- and mid-levels of this former regim," Isabella said.

Isabella classifies mid-level operatives as those who finance and plan attacks against coalition forces, while low-level fighters actually carry out the attacks.

"We are very successful in dealing with both groups," said Isabella, but he gave no figures for the number of individuals the U.S. has detained on suspicion of planning such attacks. He says U.S. troops are conducting raids constantly and notes that the missions -- even if they do not result in weapons or money being confiscated -- often yield valuable information.

Indeed, U.S. troops arrested 50 people today suspected of belonging to a "terrorist cell" during a raid near Baquba, north of Baghdad. On 26 October, U.S. soldiers reportedly killed the leader of a group suspected of carrying out recent attacks in the northern city of Mosul. They also detained seven other militants in dawn raids.

Such raids are aimed at preventing the small-scale daily attacks against coalition troops in Iraq, as well as the more coordinated attacks, such as yesterday's series of suicide bombings in Baghdad, which killed at least 34 people and wounded more than 200 -- mostly Iraqi policemen and civilians.

One U.S. soldier was killed and six were wounded in one of those attacks yesterday, at a Baghdad police station. That brings to 113 the number of U.S. soldiers killed by hostile fire in Iraq since the end of major combat operations was announced on 1 May.

Isabella says that, although such attacks against coalition forces are continuing, they will not deter U.S. forces from their mission in Iraq.

"Does it [the attacks] have any impact on our operations? Absolutely none. And they recognize that also, I believe," Isabella said.

Isabella says the attacks often give the perpetrators a public relations victory because of sensationalist media reports that paint Iraq as a dangerous place, despite the fact that security in the capital and elsewhere is generally improving. Isabella says this negative image keeps many humanitarian organizations from coming to Iraq and prompts some already in Iraq to leave.

Indeed, the International Committee of the Red Cross is considering whether to pull its foreign staff out of Iraq following yesterday's bombing at its Baghdad headquarters, which killed at least 10 people.

Isabella says such developments lend even more importance to U.S. raids and efforts to stop the violence.