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U.S. launches offensive to ferret out Saddam loyalists

BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.S. troops and Iraqi police backed by tanks, artillery and aircraft on Tuesday hunted down paramilitary groups loyal to Saddam Hussein along the Tigris River about 50 miles north of Baghdad in one of the largest U.S. military operations since the fall of Saddam's regime.

There was no information on casualties on either side.

A statement from U.S. Central Command, which oversees the U.S. occupation of Iraq, said 397 suspects and "numerous weapons systems and ammunition" had been seized since Operation Peninsula Strike began early Monday.

The operation on a peninsula of the Tigris River northeast of the city of Balad appeared to signal a determined effort by the U.S. military to stamp out attacks by suspected Saddam loyalists that have undermined reconstruction efforts and claimed the lives of 11 U.S. soldiers in Iraq in the past two weeks.

The latest attack occurred on Tuesday when two assailants fired rocket-propelled grenades at paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division manning a weapons collection point in southwest Baghdad.

Central Command said one paratrooper was killed and a second was in critical condition.

Central Command said Operation Peninsula Strike was aimed at "eradicating Baath Party loyalists, paramilitary groups and other subversive elements."

Because the operation was continuing, Central Command withheld the number of U.S. troops and Iraqi police involved, the name of the peninsula where the operation was taking place and the U.S. units involved.

"Raids were conducted via land, air and water to capture or destroy subversive elements. Air assault teams, ground attack squads, raid teams, river patrol boats and local security combined forces to block off escape routes and operate checkpoints," Central Command said.

Marking one month as the U.S. administrator for the reconstruction of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer spent Tuesday making big promises in the middle of a city still very much in ruins.

"We are putting a country ravaged by years of war back on its feet," Bremer said. "I am determined to maintain the pace of progress and reform."

Despite his optimism, Baghdad is still littered with garbage, debris, small craters and wrecked cars two months after the war.

At a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the City Hall, Bremer said Baghdad was within weeks of a city council grown out of grass-roots democracy.

He arrived at the event in his usual style, a Humvee with a gunner on top and three Suburbans filled with officials and private security guards. He shook hands, but didn't spend much time speaking with Iraqis in the crowd.

After snipping the red ribbon, he entered a building still without air conditioning and, like other facilities in Baghdad—including water treatment plants—prone to power outages. Construction crews were scattered throughout the place. All around the neighborhood were buildings half-destroyed by looting or warfare.

The city council's members will be chosen through a process that starts with representatives chosen at 87 neighborhood meetings. They in turn will pick members for nine district councils, and the councils will select delegates for the city body.

U.S. officials hope the city council will take care of such basic needs as schools, roads and firefighting. The council will consult with an executive body of civil service bureaucrats.

Faris Alasam, appointed by Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority as interim deputy mayor for technical affairs and a key consultant in the council-forming process, said of restoring basic services: "It's only the beginning." So far, he said, the city is getting only about 60 percent of the water it needs daily.

Later in the day, Bremer spoke of jump-starting a free-market economy in Iraq by creating a business center in the city's convention center. He also announced a $100 million construction fund for projects such as refurbishing ministries that were bombed or looted during the war and repairing stretches of the vital Baghdad-to-Basra highway.

The convention site, he said, will allow international investors to meet with Iraqi companies and discuss joint-venture projects.

But as with many other places in Baghdad, the convention center doesn't have working toilets. There is a perimeter of concertina wire manned by U.S. soldiers who don't speak Arabic. There are no functioning traffic lights on the street outside, and cars honk and swerve to miss each other.

If businessmen were to come, they would have to rely on satellite phones, which are notoriously spotty in the congested urban center. While Bremer's staff recently has been outfitted with cell phones with U.S. area codes, no one else in the city has them.

"I know we have lots of work to do," Bremer said. "We have an economy that had above 50 percent unemployment before the war, and unemployment has gone up. We have to get the private sector going."

A paycheck would be a good starting point for Latifa Hammed, who was at City Hall to hear Bremer on Tuesday. She used to work as a maid for the government, but hasn't been paid in three months. A mother of eight whose husband, a soldier, was killed in fighting in northern Iraq during the 1980s, Hammed has been selling cigarettes and candy in the street to buy food.

U.S. officials said government workers now had been paid their back wages through April. Some 12,000 city workers got their checks starting Saturday, and those payments were to wind up Tuesday. Payment through the end of May is scheduled to arrive in two weeks.

The checks were funded with Iraqi money from accounts that had been frozen by United Nations sanctions, said Ted Morse, who is overseeing the reconstruction of Baghdad.

Abrahim Jafari, a spokesman for the Da'wa Party, the oldest Islamic political party in Iraq, said creating jobs was a major concern of his organization.

"The majority of Iraqi people are jobless, and there is a matter of dignity that that creates," he said. "If a man can find a job he will work hard. If not, then people are forced to steal to provide for their families. Bremer should find a way to provide jobs because there is a lot of rebuilding to do."

Hammed said she was angry and worried about how she would take care of her family.

"Americans should pay us our salaries because this is our money from our oil," Hammed said.

"We wish that the Americans will be more merciful than Saddam Hussein," she said.

Asked how she thought things might pan out with the United States in Iraq, Hammed looked at the sky, shrugged and said, "I don't know."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): paul+bremer