BAQUBAH, Iraq -- U.S. troops launched a second night of intensive searches from air and ground north of Baghdad today in an effort to root out what the military called “various subversive elements” and curtail the strikes that have killed a dozen Americans and Britons in recent days.
U.S. forces arrested 61 people and confiscated more than a dozen weapons in 23 raids Sunday, mainly in small towns in Diyala province north of Baghdad, which stretches from the Iranian border to the Tigris River, the military said. The region is predominantly Sunni Muslim and was a Saddam Hussein stronghold.
The military said the raids, part of Operation Sidewinder, would be ongoing. The offensive is the third in a series aimed at supporters of Hussein’s regime since the end of major combat in May.
The operation came as the American who is leading the reconstruction effort said he believes that Hussein is in Iraq and will be captured.
“I think he’s still in the country. We’ll catch him. He has a lot of places to hide, but we’ll catch him,” said L. Paul Bremer III. He noted that two weeks ago, U.S. forces captured Abid Hamid Mahmud Tikriti, Hussein’s right-hand man, who was fourth on the U.S. list of most-wanted Iraqis.
“We caught this No. 4 guy,” Bremer said. “The noose is getting tighter. Obviously, I’d prefer it to be sooner rather than later.”
Despite controlling almost all of Iraq, U.S.-led forces have been struggling since the end of outright hostilities to subdue continuing resistance.
“The last major resistance is starting to launch more and more coordinated attacks,” Capt. Josh Felker of the 2nd Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division said today in Baqubah, about 30 miles north of Baghdad. “It’s not cool.”
Earlier operations were aimed at least in part at gathering information on Hussein’s whereabouts, or perhaps capturing him outright. In a statement Sunday, the military said it was looking for senior Baath Party loyalists and others “suspected of perpetrating attacks against U.S. forces.”
Felker said today’s raids were not house-to-house searches. “It’s looking for very specific targets,” he said. Asked whether Hussein was one, he said: “It’s always about finding Saddam. Who wouldn’t want to find Saddam?”
The military said Sunday’s raids occurred within “a nexus of paramilitary activity in central Iraq located along an approximate stretch of the Tigris River from Samarra to Baghdad, and is the location of several destabilizing influences in the region.”
The implication that the attacks against occupation forces were somehow coordinated appeared to contradict Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s statement last week that the attacks have been isolated incidents more criminal than subversive in nature.
Two earlier series of raids in the same region of central Iraq consisted mainly of door-to-door searches for Hussein loyalists and their weapons. Those raids produced hundreds of arrests but had a double edge: Many Iraqis whose homes were searched were outraged by what they called an unwarranted invasion of their privacy.
The raids have been a consistent source of complaint among Iraqis, who say they typify American arrogance and justify the feeling among some that the U.S. came to colonize Iraq.
That anger may be spurring some of the attacks on U.S. forces. The recent surge of aggression toward U.S. forces prompted several senators Sunday to call for more troops -- including those from other nations -- to patrol the streets of Iraq. Sen. Charles Hagel (R-Neb.), who recently visited Iraq, described the recent attacks on troops as a “jarring gong” that should compel the Bush administration to call in help from allied nations.
“Time is not on our side. Every day that ticks by, we are losing ground,” Hagel said on CNN’s “Late Edition.”
In an interview, Bremer acknowledged that uncertainty over Hussein’s fate is having an ill effect on the U.S.-led reconstruction.
“Obviously, it is important to capture or kill Saddam,” he said. “We know that the remnants of the old regime are going around the bazaars and the villages and the towns and saying, ‘You know, Saddam is still on the loose, and we have this party, the Party of Return, and we’re going to come back, and if you cooperate with the coalition forces you’ll be sorry.’ ”
But Bremer cited encouraging developments in recent days.
“Starting about 10 days ago or two weeks ago, we saw ... something new. We saw Iraqi citizens coming to tell us, ‘This and this guy is a Baathist, or there are some bad people at the third house down on the left.’
“This was something that was not happening before, and I believe that’s a sign that a number of plain old Iraqi citizens are now confident enough that they are willing to start providing us information. We find out quite a lot, and it has been important in some of the operations some our tactical commanders have been able to conduct to catch bad guys.”
In Washington, the call for more forces on the ground in Iraq was strongest among Democrats, who criticized the administration for poor planning and failing to send enough troops.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), who traveled to Iraq with Hagel, noted that Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz were critical of Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki’s estimate in February that at least 200,000 troops would be needed to keep the peace in Iraq.
“Shinseki was right,” Biden said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I think we need somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000 other troops. I want to see French, German, I want to see Turkish patches on people’s arms sitting on the street corners, standing there in Iraq.”
There are approximately 146,000 U.S. troops and about 12,000 British troops in Iraq, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
Biden said Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney have “got to get over this ideological fixation ... of not letting the Europeans and NATO come in.”
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has helped Poland amass 2,300 peacekeeping troops for Iraq, but Biden said NATO Secretary-General George Robertson has promised that the organization is “ready to come in large numbers.”
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) insisted time was short. “I don’t think we have months. I think we’ve got weeks to turn this around,” Dodd said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “We need to invite others around the region, as well as the world, to help us.”
Republicans issued muted calls to expand the international presence in Iraq and possibly increase overall troop numbers.
“We need help from our friends and allies,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “Whether we need additional [U.S.] troops or not, I don’t know. But I do know this, that a lot of our soldiers are getting very tired.”
McDermott and Rubin reported from Baghdad, McDonnell from Baqubah. Times staff writer John Hendren in Washington contributed to this report.