Iraqis Irate As US Forces
Roam Hostile Countryside

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

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 Friday.
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.
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 the country.
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 technician.
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 civilians.
"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.



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