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U.S. crackdown nets more insurgents in Iraq

U.S. troops intensified a crackdown on anti-American insurgents across restive central Iraq on Sunday, as score-settling killings raised fears of more violence in the south of the country.
/ Source: Reuters

U.S. troops intensified a crackdown on anti-American insurgents across restive central Iraq on Sunday, as score-settling killings raised fears of more violence in the south of the country.

U.S. forces have pursued the hunt for guerrillas in the last week, buoyed by the capture of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein near his hometown of Tikrit on December 13.

Only one U.S. soldier is known to have been killed by hostile fire since the announcement of Saddam's arrest. Saddam loyalists and Islamist fighters have killed 200 U.S. soldiers since Washington announced an end to major combat on May 1.

Western security sources warn that the threat of attacks has not diminished. Intelligence indicates more attacks are planned against U.S. and Western targets in Iraq over the Christmas period.

A roadside bomb exploded in Baghdad shortly before midnight, just missing a U.S. patrol and slightly injuring two Iraqi passers-by.

Witnesses said on Sunday U.S. troops were conducting a second day of house-to-house searches in the town of Rawah, close to the Syrian border. Soldiers manning checkpoints were stopping cars from entering the town.

Residents said scores, some former Baath party members, had been arrested.

Witnesses in the town of Fallujah, 32 miles west of Baghdad, said five people were arrested in a pre-dawn raid on a number of houses. There were no details on those held.

In the defiant town of Samarra to the east, the U.S. military said on Saturday night 111 people had been arrested within 48 hours as part of "Operation Ivy Blizzard" to flush out guerrillas.

It said 15 of those arrested were targeted as prominent figures in anti-U.S. activities throughout the area. Caches of weapons and ammunition were also seized.

In the northern town of Mosul, soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division detained a suspect for Baath Party activities, including continuing to hold Baath Party meetings, planning possible attacks on U.S. forces and for "possible war crimes to include torture and murder", the military said.

Baathists killed
Violent score-settling raged with attacks on Saturday on two former members of Saddam Hussein's toppled Baath Party in the Shiite Muslim holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq, police said.

Dhamya Abbas, a teacher said by residents to be a senior Baath Party official in Najaf during the crushing of a 1991 Shi'ite uprising, was walking to school with her eight-year-old son when gunmen opened fire, killing him and wounding her.

Baathist Ali Kassem, who residents said was an informer for Saddam's feared security agents, was killed in another attack.

In a surprise pre-Christmas trip on Saturday, Spain's Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar made a morale-boosting visit to Spanish troops in Iraq.

"I fully back the work that our compatriots are doing here. This is a fight for a just cause, the cause of freedom, democracy, stability and respect for international law," Aznar said during his short stop at the southern Diwaniya town on his first trip to Iraq since the U.S.-led war.

Despite strong opposition to the war among the Spanish public, Spain has 1,300 soldiers in Iraq who are still reeling from a huge blow in November when Iraqis killed seven Spanish intelligence officers.

Another U.S. ally, Japan, is set to send hundreds of troops to the area and the leader of the junior party in Japan's ruling coalition said after a visit to southern Iraq that it seemed relatively safe.

"It is more peaceful than I imagined before I went," Takenori Kanzaki, whose Buddhist-backed New Komeito party had expressed reservations about the sending of troops, said in Kuwait after a brief trip to the town of Samawah, where Japanese ground troops will be based next year.

"I did wear a bullet-proof jacket, but the atmosphere seemed relatively peaceful."