Hundreds of Troops Pour Into Iraqi City

Times Staff Writers

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.

The Americans continued to hold about 60 Iraqis detained in what was dubbed "Operation Peninsula Strike." In a separate arrest, the U.S. Central Command announced Saturday that the commander of the Iraqi air force had been taken into custody. It gave no other details about the detention of Hamid Raja Shalah, No. 17 on the Pentagon's most-wanted list.

A two-week gun amnesty ended Saturday, and the military plans to arrest people who are carrying weapons other than personal arms and those who keep banned weapons in their homes or cars. It appeared doubtful that the weapons brought in represented even a sliver of those in the country.

In the province that includes Tikrit, one of the most heavily armed because it was the home of many of the paramilitary fighters known as the Fedayeen Saddam, just 40 weapons were brought in, said the chief of police, Gen. Mizher Ghanam.

Overall numbers for the country were still being gathered, but by Friday the military said it had received 45 machine guns, 152 rocket-propelled grenade-launchers and 11 antiaircraft weapons as well as 406 automatic rifles.

Now that the amnesty is over, the police and the military are free to take a more aggressive stand on weapons possession, said Ghanam, who is working with U.S. forces. "The best thing would be if we can convince people to turn in their weapons," he said.

"But if that has failed," he said, "we will have to inspect, and we will use force, we will use random checkpoints, and as we gather information about where weapons are located, we will conduct special operations to find them." But that will also remind residents that they are in an occupied country.

The Army is aware that it needs to fight this battle on two fronts, and so when it is not searching homes, confiscating weapons and detaining suspects, it is sending its soldiers into the community seeking to generate goodwill.

Maj. Jon Tao had that assignment Saturday. Tao is normally assigned to a chemical weapons unit, but these days he is helping to remove the debris of war from farmers' fields.

If there is any frustration on Tao's part, it is with the Iraqis' expectations. "It took them 35 years to destroy this place, and they want us to fix it in two weeks."


Rubin reported from Fallouja and Slackman from Baghdad. Times staff writer Azadeh Moaveni in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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