BAGHDAD—U.S. troops killed seven Iraqi civilians Sunday as they intensified their search for deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, and an American soldier became the 5th soldier killed during one of the bloodiest weekends since the war began.
The soldier was killed in a grenade attack early Sunday. Military officials did not provide details, but his death brings to 48 the number of U.S. forces killed since President Bush declared an end to major combat on May 1. So far, an estimated 162 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq. There is no official death count for Iraqi civilians.
Air Force Gen. Richard B. Meyers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who arrived in Iraq on Sunday, said it was too early to tell if the increase in attacks is connected to the deaths of Saddam's sons, Udai and Qusai. U.S. soldiers killed the men on Tuesday in the northern city of Mosul.
But many Iraqis do express anger over the deaths of civilians, such as those killed at the roadblock Sunday in one of two incidents in which American soldiers opened fire.
Eyewitnesses said U.S. soldiers fired on two cars carrying Iraqi civilians as they tried to drive past a military roadblock in Baghdad. The roadblock was erected to cordon off the area where soldiers were raiding a house looking for Saddam.
The ousted leader was not found in the house.
A U.S. military spokesman refused to comment on the operation or to confirm whether civilians were killed.
But he suggested that the soldiers fired on the cars because they thought they were in danger.
"If somebody runs a checkpoint, they're going to open up on them," said Staff Sgt. J.J. Johnson, a coalition military spokesman. "If they feel that they're lives are in danger, they're definitely going to open up on them."
The raid of the Baghdad house was part of an intensified effort in recent days to hunt down Saddam, after U.S. troops killed his two sons, two of the most powerful and feared figures of the former regime.
U.S. officials here and in the United States say they are confident that the noose is closing on Saddam, and they say that more Iraqis are coming forward with information to help in the search.
Yet many Iraqis also continue to rail against the presence of U.S. troops in their country, especially as the civilian death toll increases.
In a second incident, American troops fired on Iraqis throwing stones in the holy Shiite city of Karbala, but there were no reports of deaths. The Iraqis were protesting the death of two Iraqi men killed by U.S. troops on Saturday.
Despite the continuing clashes between Iraqis and American soldiers, Meyers said he was optimistic about an increase in tips from Iraqis since the brothers' deaths.
He vowed to crack down on what he called the "Baathist heartland"—northern cities including Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, where soldiers are also intently hunting for the former leader.
Several U.S. troops have been ambushed in Tikrit in what Meyers called the work of mercenaries and not a central command.
"(Saddam) is so busy surviving, he is having no impact on the security situation," Meyers said.
U.S. forces reportedly barely missed Saddam's security chief—and possibly the deposed leader himself—in three simultaneous raids of farms in Tikrit.
Meanwhile, military officials on Sunday acknowledged an investigation into the possible abuse of power by U.S. troops elsewhere in southern Iraq. A spokesman would not describe the alleged misconduct.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.