'Two great weeks' says general. For who?

US commander's triumphal note jars with deadly toll from guerrilla attacks - which grow ever more brazen

By Phil Reeves in Baghdad

30 November 2003

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America's top military commander in Iraq conceded yesterday that the search for Saddam Hussein is proving "difficult" and appealed for help from the Iraqi population in finding the fugitive dictator.

But Lt Gen Ricardo Sanchez also insisted that the last fortnight, in which US forces have been conducting a military offensive against Iraqi guerrillas has been a "great two weeks" for the US-led coalition forces and for Iraq.

The general's upbeat views will surprise critics of the occupation, not least because he delivered them at the end of the deadliest month for the 130,000 American troops in Iraq since the US-led invasion in March.

At least 75 US soldiers were killed in Iraq in November, bringing the overall number of deaths among the troops to 440 since the start of the war. Around 300 of these are listed as having died in combat, almost four times the number of British soldiers to lose their lives.

The "great two weeks" also included the single bloodiest US military post-invasion loss - the collision of two Black Hawk helicopters in Mosul, which the army is now investigating to establish the accuracy of initial reports that one of them was hit by a surface-to-air missile. And in the latest attack on a partner in the US-led coalition, at least six members of a Spanish intelligence team were reported killed in an attack south of Baghdad yesterday.

The fortnight also saw an astonishingly brazen multiple attack in the centre of the capital in which two large hotels and the Ministry of Oil were hit by rockets fired from donkey-drawn carts at the height of "Iron Hammer", an elaborate US anti-insurgency operation using heavy weaponry in and around the capital.

The general said that the daily average number of attacks against American forces had fallen by more than 30 per cent in the past 14 days, and was down to an average of 22 "engagements" a day. But he said there have been more attacks on Iraqis by the US's opponents.

The latter were defined primarily as "mid-level Baathists and former regime loyalists", who have "tactical links" to Islamist fundamentalists and foreign fighters. He said he had no conclusive evidence of al-Qa'ida's involvement, although the network may have supplied some suicide bombers - now dead.

Guerrillas launched more than 150 attacks on Iraqi police and civilians during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month which ended last week. These included twin attacks by suicide car bombers attacked two bases used by the police - seen by the resistance as collaborators with the US - which killed 17 Iraqis, also in the same "great two weeks". But General Sanchez said the level of co-operation and information coming from Iraqis is increasing, and declared that the Iraqi people were committed to the current path.

However, it is doubtful whether his appeal for Iraqis to help in the search for Saddam will amount to much. Although a significant number of Iraqis want the US to stay for now - fearing a premature withdrawal would produce a bloodbath - there is little love lost between the occupied and the occupier. Complaints abound among Iraqis in Baghdad about the continuing electricity and petrol shortages, raging unemployment, lack of security, and the abrasive behaviour of some of the American soldiers.

So far, the US offer of $25m (£15m) for Saddam has yet to lead to his discovery.

In the same "great two weeks", a tape surfaced carrying Saddam's voice, in which he appealed to Iraqis to resist the occupation. This development was taken so seriously by the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council that it banned the Arabic satellite TV station which aired the tape - Dubai-based al-Arabiya - from broadcasting from Iraq on the grounds that it was inciting violence.

The ban has reinforced cynicism about the occupation among. Iraqis point out that censoring the media hardly squares with the Bush administration's promises to bring freedom and democracy.

"This only makes opposition to the US stronger," said Wahad Yacoub, of al-Arabiya's Baghdad bureau. He also said he believed that any western TV station with such a scoop would have broadcast it.

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