- BALAD, Iraq (Reuters) - A
U.S. drive to root out supporters of Saddam Hussein from his heartland
north of Baghdad is fueling mounting hostility toward the American forces
occupying Iraq, angry local people said Friday.
- Thousands of U.S. troops launched their biggest operation
this week since major combat was declared over, raiding hide-outs of suspected
Saddam loyalists around the small agriculture market town of Balad.
- In the bloodiest clash of the operation so far, U.S.
forces said they killed 27 people who ambushed a tank patrol in the area
- But locals said the harsh U.S. crackdown would only alienate
Iraqis and stir up discontent.
- "What does America expect? We are eating bread from
the same flour that Saddam distributed. The United States has not done
anything for Iraq," said Jasem al-Obeidi.
- Since Saddam was ousted in April, food distribution mostly
stopped and unemployment rose in Balad, which is dependent on jobs in the
military and agriculture.
- The town is full of orchards, watermelon fields, fig
and apricot trees. An Iraqi air base now occupied by U.S. forces is next
to the town.
- U.S. helicopters fly low over the fields. Iraqi warplanes
that have not flown for years for lack of spare parts lie looted between
sand dunes. Beside one was an ejector seat, apparently triggered by looters.
- HOMES RANSACKED
- Iraqis around Balad say their homes have been ransacked
and their property damaged by U.S. troops during the raids, which began
Monday. Many say they were assaulted, or handcuffed and detained for hours
for no reason.
- "The United States sent the Iraqi army home without
compensation. They set up checkpoints and prevented farmers from going
to work," said Taleb, a farmer, as he watched a truck full of U.S.
soldiers pass in front of his home.
- He said his brother recently drove to town to sell tomatoes
and cucumbers but was detained for four days on the way.
- The U.S military says its sweep through Balad, dubbed
Operation Peninsula Strike, is aimed at flushing out supporters of Saddam
who have staged repeated deadly ambushes on American soldiers in mostly
Sunni Muslim parts of Iraq.
- Shi'ites, predominantly in the south of the country,
are the majority Muslim sect, but Sunni Muslims have traditionally ruled
- Saddam also exercised power through the Baath Party and
Balad residents said the Americans were relying on dubious local informants
to arrest former party members and break its influence.
- "The approach is naive. One had to become a Baathist
to live in Iraq, even as a kindergarten teacher," said Haitham, a
- Farmers said many civilians had been killed in the U.S.
operation, including five who they said died after American forces came
under attack Thursday near an air base.
- U.S. Lt. Col. Andy Fawler said his troops would not target
- "My men have strict orders not to shoot at any unarmed
civilian day or night. If they had weapons and they were shooting, then
my troopers will return fire," he said.