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Hundreds of Troops Pour Into Iraqi City

June 15, 2003|Alissa J. Rubin and Michael Slackman | Times Staff Writers

FALLOUJA, Iraq — U.S. troops thrust into this hotbed of anti-American sentiment early today as part of a broad military operation aimed at finding militia leaders and weapons.

As many as 1,000 troops, supported by tanks, aircraft and fighting vehicles, moved out in the early morning darkness to seal off Fallouja.

Capt. Marc Alacqua, a civil affairs officer attached to the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, confirmed the scope of the operation, one of the largest since the major phase of hostilities ended last month.

"It's part of the continuing work that needs to be done," Alacqua said.

The operation here began about 3 a.m. and ended hours later.

Officials said about a dozen people were taken into custody.

"It is hard to believe we got every bad actor," Alacqua said. "As time goes on, we will see what else comes up. I'm sure there will be further operations."

He said arms also have been seized, but he had no details.

"I don't think we could be surprised about what is out there," he said. "The whole country was an armed camp."

There were no immediate reports of any casualties among Americans or Iraqis.

The operation followed a week of military strikes north and west of Baghdad, in a region that once served as a bulwark of Saddam Hussein's rule. U.S. troops have swept in, searching for weapons, detaining residents and at one point bombing what was described as a "terrorist training camp" near Iraq's border with Syria.

Soldiers from the 3rd Infantry's 2nd Brigade descended on this city in what the military has called "Operation Spartan Strike" just three hours after a deadline passed for Iraqis to turn in illegal weapons as part of an amnesty program.

Army Capt. John Ives, said today's actions were "a coordinated effort across the country to snag certain people." After seizing some arms caches and taking perhaps a dozen prisoners, he said, the U.S. began distributing humanitarian aid.

"This is a carrot and the stick, and as far as Fallouja is concerned the stick was this big," he said, holding his hands a small distance apart. "The carrot was this big," he finished, with his arms wide.

As he spoke, soldiers staffed two distribution points for free fuel to residents.

Soldiers also cleaned out soccer fields and handed out soccer balls to kids. Humanitarian rations, including 12,000 meals for schoolchildren, were being distributed.

Although only a small number of people were captured, the U.S. aim was to reduce the number of anti-American activists who had been recruiting people unhappy with the U.S. role here. Fallouja has emerged as a practical and symbolic center of armed resistance.

From the moment U.S. troops first arrived in the town in late April, its residents have pressed for them to leave. There have been confrontations almost daily, most recently with ambush attacks on U.S. soldiers. In the last two months, at least 18 civilians and one soldier were killed, and at least four soldiers wounded.

Last week, the Americans sent 4,000 troops, tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles into the city hoping to end resistance. As the U.S. stepped up its forces, residents became increasingly hostile. Fliers were posted in town telling people not to cooperate with the Americans and warning that those who did would face trouble.

Meanwhile, in Tikrit, Hussein's hometown, the last of 21 university professors and administrators caught in a sweep by U.S. forces here last month were released Saturday, and the tales they brought home of their captors were not flattering.

These will be added to the stories about people who were inadvertently killed by U.S. troops, homes that were damaged while they were being searched, and unexplained detentions by the foreign forces, as Iraqis paint an increasingly oppressive picture of the American occupiers.

Abdul Majid Shabab Ahmed, a courtly 60-year-old professor of economics who was released after 21 days in a U.S. detention camp, was quick to say he was not mistreated. But he said he was humiliated by the constant barking of the prison guards, who demanded that prisoners stand, haul water and clean latrines.

Most upsetting was that he was unable to wash properly -- a requirement for devout Muslims before their daily prayers.

When he was released, a soldier apologized to him for the inconvenience.

Ahmed replied, "I hope you go home safely to your family." The typically polite Arab words carried a less positive message: If the Americans keep behaving the way they have been, there will be more attacks and fewer soldiers will go home.

"The Americans have to learn how to deal with us," he said. "At my age I can bear it, but younger people cannot." For every person arrested and released, the Americans potentially make a new enemy despite an increasingly concerted effort to pair tough enforcement operations with efforts to help Iraqis and win them over.

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