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Massive Sweep Underway in Iraq to Stop Attacks on Coalition Troops - 2003-06-26

With the number of coalition casualties climbing in Iraq, U.S. forces are continuing a massive sweep north and west of Baghdad designed to crackdown on Iraqis responsible for the violence. While violent incidents involving U.S. and British soldiers appear to be rising, officials at the Pentagon insist coalition forces are making significant progress in their efforts to bring security to the Iraqi people.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says more than 30 of the 55 most wanted Iraqis from Saddam Hussein's regime have been captured and two others have been killed.

Mr. Rumsfeld also insists U.S. soldiers are tracking down and either killing or capturing Iraqis trying to harm coalition troops.

"They are making progress against the dead-enders who are harassing coalition forces," said Mr. Rumsfeld. "Just as they were unable to stop the coalition advance in Baghdad, the death squads will not stop our commitment to create stability and security in post-war Iraq."

Earlier this week stories in British and American newspapers caused a sensation when un-named U.S. defense officials were quoted as saying Saddam Hussein and his two sons may have been killed in an attack by commandos on a convoy near the Syrian border.

The team of commandos, known as Task Force 20, has been hunting for top Iraqi officials for months.

A few days later Mr. Rumsfeld said he had "no reason to believe" that Iraqi leaders had been killed in the attack.

A reporter for the New York Times newspaper on the Iraqi-Syrian border said two civilians, an infant and her mother, were killed when coalition aircraft bombed their home during the raid.

Even though more than a week has gone by many details of the raid have remained secret.

Although reporters at the Pentagon repeatedly pressed Mr. Rumsfeld for information, the defense secretary said soldiers in Iraq are still sorting out what happened.

"We do have to be right, and therefore, we need to allow some time so that people can sort through what took place and then get back to us, then we talk about it," he said. "We like to talk about it in a way that you can feel that we have done our due diligence and we know precisely what took place."

Defense officials also reacted this week to concern from some members of the U.S. Congress that no weapons of mass destruction have been found so far in Iraq.

Air Force General Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that while he believes such weapons will be found, intelligence gathering and analysis is not an exact science.

"You know you act off intelligence," said General Myers. "Intelligence does not necessarily mean something is true. It is just it is intelligence.

"You know, it is your best estimate of the situation," he continued. "It does not mean it is a fact. I mean, that is not what intelligence is. It is not and so you make judgments."

There have been almost daily attacks on U.S. forces in central and western Iraq, a region dominated by Sunni Muslims and the main power base for the ousted regime of Saddam Hussein. Pentagon officials suggest one reason for the increased violence is that coalition soldiers are continuing what they call Operation Desert Scorpion, a major effort by the military to crackdown on armed Iraqis still loyal to Saddam Hussein.

Hundreds of Iraqis have been arrested in the sweeps and are being interrogated by coalition troops.

But members of Congress, including strong supporters of the war, are expressing concern about the deadly assaults on coalition forces.

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee met recently with Secretary Rumsfeld to discuss developments in Iraq.

The Chairman of the committee, Senator John Warner of Virginia, told reporters at the Pentagon that "all Americans have a deep concern" about the increase in casualties.

"We expressed to the secretary and the chiefs of services our heartfelt concern for the loss of Americans still suffering casualties in the Iraqi theater and indeed the Afghanistan area," he said.

General Myers says there are 146,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee say it is time for the Bush administration to give the American people an idea of how many soldiers will be needed there and how long they will have to stay.

The Pentagon is currently assessing how many soldiers will remain in Iraq to make the country secure and to assist in the reconstruction process.

That assessment is expected to be completed in the coming days.