BAGHDAD - U.S. troops psyched up on a bizarre musical reprise from Vietnam war film "Apocalypse Now" before crashing into Iraqi homes to hunt gunmen on Saturday, as Shi'ite Muslims rallied against the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
With Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" still ringing in their ears and the clatter of helicopters overhead, soldiers rammed vehicles into metal gates and hundreds of troops raided houses in the western city of Ramadi after sunrise as part of a drive to quell a spate of attacks on U.S. forces.
A previously unknown group, calling itself the Iraqi National Front of Fedayeen, vowed to intensify assaults on U.S. troops until they leave Iraq.
Soldiers from the U.S. Army's First Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment, guard a suspect during a raid early June 21, 2003 in the city of Ramadi, around 100 km (60 miles) west of Baghdad. The raid was part of an operation launched a week ago to stamp out armed resistance to US forces. REUTERS/Aladin Abdel Naby
A man with his face swathed in a red-and-white headscarf read the threat on a videotape received by Lebanon's LBC television. There was no way to verify its authenticity.
"If they want their soldiers to be safe, they must leave our pure land," the man said, disavowing any link to Saddam Hussein. He was flanked by three masked men with weapons.
Iraqi assailants have killed 17 U.S. soldiers since major combat was declared over on May 1, three weeks after the fall of Baghdad ended 24 years of Saddam Hussein's iron rule.
U.S. officials blame the attacks on Saddam loyalists. Many Iraqis say the resistance is fueled by resentment at the occupation and the behavior of U.S. troops.
"The Americans are occupiers and aggressors," said Sayyid Ali, one of about 2,000 Shi'ites who protested outside the vast palace compound in Baghdad now used by Iraq's U.S. rulers.
"They were supposed to free us from the oppressor, now they are only occupying us," he said. "We want to form a national government. "We want freedom and justice."
The United States and Britain say their forces will stay put until they can restore security, revive the economy and arrange a transition to an elected, sovereign Iraqi government.
However, they have failed to find Saddam or his alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction which they cited as their main justification for going to war on March 20.
U.S. officials in Washington said the deposed president's captured former secretary Abid Hamid Mahmud al-Tikriti had told interrogators Saddam and his two sons were alive and in Iraq.
They said intelligence agencies were not certain Mahmud Tikriti was telling the truth, but that U.S. Special Operations troops and paramilitary intelligence agents were on an intense hunt for the three.
Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator of Iraq, said the issue of Saddam's fate needed to be resolved one way or another, because uncertainty emboldened supporters of the toppled regime.
"It gives them an ability to say Saddam is still alive, he's coming back, and we're coming back, and what that does is it disinclines people who might otherwise want to cooperate with us from cooperating with us," Bremer told reporters on a visit to neighboring Jordan.
President Bush, floating a new explanation for the failure to find banned weapons, said suspected arms sites had been looted as Saddam's government crumbled.
"For more than a decade, Saddam Hussein went to great lengths to hide his weapons from the world. And in the regime's final days, documents and suspected weapons sites were looted and burned," Bush said in his weekly radio address.
A U.S. treasury official attending a meeting organized by the World Economic Forum in Jordan for political and business leaders, said world donors must provide aid as well as debt relief to Iraq for postwar reconstruction.
BOOTS AND ALL
Before Saturday's robust sweep through Ramadi, 100 km (60 miles) west of Baghdad, soldiers of the First Battalion of the 124th Infantry Regiment psyched themselves up at a base nearby in a musical moment redolent of Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film about the Vietnam war.
Hit-and-run strikes on U.S. troops have been concentrated in Sunni Muslim towns such as Ramadi west and north of Baghdad.
One unit of troops dragged half a dozen men from their homes as women wailed. They seized weapons and a computer disk.
Officers said they aimed to capture five men from the Fedayeen paramilitary force, which put up some of the fiercest resistance to U.S. troops during their invasion.
The raid was part of Operation Desert Scorpion, launched on June 15 to crack down on militants and befriend civilians by helping with aid and reconstruction projects.
A U.S. military spokesman said on Saturday that 90 Desert Scorpion raids had captured 540 people. (Additional reporting by Andrew Gray and Michael Georgy)
Copyright 2003 Reuters Ltd