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U.S. Pounds Saddam's Hometown; 2 GIs Die 

By SLOBODAN LEKIC, Associated Press Writer

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Insurgents killed two U.S. paratroopers and wounded another west of Baghdad on Saturday as the U.S. military unleashed a show of force in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, rocketing buildings to rubble and dropping 500-pound bombs near the site where a Black Hawk helicopter crashed.

Meanwhile, in a setback to efforts at rebuilding in Iraq, the international Red Cross said Saturday it was temporarily closing its offices in Baghdad and the southern city of Basra because of security fears amid mounting attacks on foreigners.

The pre-dawn barrage in Tikrit came hours after the Black Hawk apparently shot down by insurgents exploded in flames in a grassy field just outside the city, a hotbed of anti-American sentiment. Six Americans in the copter died, capping the bloodiest week in Iraq for U.S. forces since the fall of Baghdad.

In retaliation, U.S. rocket and heavy machine gun fire destroyed a warehouse and two houses believed to have been used by militants. Air Force fighters screeching overhead dropped bombs, which rattled houses. Mortar rounds howled, and tracer bullets lit up the sky.

"We want to remind this town that we have teeth and claws and we will use them," said Lt. Col. Steven Russell of the 4th Infantry Division, who led raid in Tikrit, a city of 120,000 people about 120 miles north of Baghdad.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told reporters in Baghdad that the Bush administration was "sobered by the problem" of increased violence.

Still, he said his talks in the Iraqi capital convinced him that "we have a very solid plan to go out and get these people who are killing us and killing Iraqis."

"I'm pretty convinced after this short visit that we're going to take the fight to the enemy," Armitage said Saturday.

The two 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers died Saturday when a homemade bomb exploded beside their vehicle about 8:30 a.m. in Fallujah, a center of Sunni Muslim resistance 40 miles west of Baghdad, the military said.

Their deaths brought to 34 the number of American soldiers who have died in Iraq this month as resistance escalated during the holy fasting month of Ramadan.

Hours after the Black Hawk helicopter went down Friday, suspected insurgents fired at least two mortar rounds into a sprawling Tikrit compound studded with Saddam's marble palaces that has been turned into a U.S. base. There were no injuries.

The U.S. Army quickly took action, reimposing a 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew that had been lifted so people could celebrate Ramadan, which lasts for another two weeks.

After midnight, Russell's convoy of Humvees and Bradley fighting vehicles, their headlights turned off, set out across Tikrit toward the three buildings insurgents were suspected of using.

Shoulder-fired rockets, a missile, and heavy machine gun fire slammed into an abandoned warehouse. Soldiers yelled, "Knock, knock," and "Good morning" in celebration as the structure crumbled amid clouds of dust and smoke.

Although most houses had their lights on, nobody dared to look outside. When a woman was heard coughing from inside one house, soldiers trained their guns and the red laser night-sights on a second-floor window. The coughing quickly stopped.

The international Red Cross had hoped to keep its Baghdad and Basra offices open, even though it planned reductions in its foreign staff after the Oct. 27 truck-bombing at its Baghdad office.

But a spokesman in Geneva, Florian Westphal, said Saturday that the "extremely dangerous and volatile situation" had prompted the organization to temporarily close the two branches. The office in the northern city of Irbil will remain open.
 

In Mosul, 250 miles north of Baghdad, guerrillas fired six mortar rounds at a police station in the city, Iraqi police said Saturday. Several shells missed their target and fell on nearby houses, slightly injuring a resident.

Also, witnesses said gunmen fired Saturday afternoon at a car carrying four uniformed American soldiers, who abandoned the vehicle and fled after it broke down shortly after the shooting.

Residents who set the vehicle on fire said some of the Americans appeared to have been injured.

"They are occupying the world," said Shazad Ahmed, one of the residents. "What do you expect the people to do? Kiss them?"

Mosul, once considered relatively free of guerrilla activity, has seen dozens of attacks on U.S. forces in recent weeks, indicating that the rebellion has moved northward from its original stronghold in the so-called Sunni Triangle north and west of Baghdad.

Troops in Mosul recovered seven shoulder-launched SAM-7 Strela anti-aircraft missiles, the military said. Six were turned in by a citizen in exchange for a monetary reward, while an infantry patrol found the seventh hidden in tall grass.

Patrols also found a weapons cache 333 hand grenades, 92 rocket-propelled grenades and two RPG launchers and arrested seven men believed to have been involved in previous attacks.

The military also said a man suspected of having been a Saddam bodyguard was detained Saturday in the northern oil city of Kirkuk.

While the cause of the Black Hawk crash was still undetermined, several U.S. officials believe it was shot down. The U.S. command said Saturday that initial findings "discount the use of surface-to-air missiles as a possible cause."

U.S. officers have long been concerned about the safety of aviation because of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of shoulder-fired missiles missing in Iraq after the collapse of Saddam's regime in April.

On Oct. 25, insurgents shot down a Black Hawk over Tikrit, injuring one crewman. On Sunday, gunners brought down a Chinook transport helicopter west of Baghdad, killing 16 Americans in the bloodiest single strike against U.S. forces since the war began March 20. An Apache attack helicopter was shot down in June, but the two crewmembers escaped injury.

 


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