U.S. operation targets Saddam loyalists
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. military has launched a new operation in Iraq in an attempt to crush surviving Saddam Hussein loyalists and "paramilitary elements" believed to be behind a series of lethal attacks, officials said Sunday.
Operation Sidewinder is spearheaded by members of the Army's 4th Infantry Division and includes ground, armor and air elements, according to officials familiar with the operation.
Since President Bush announced the end of hostilities in Iraq on May 1, more than 20 Americans and six British troops have been killed by hostile fire.
The operation was under way in an area of central Iraq from Baghdad to Samarra along the Tigris River, which U.S. Central Command said is "the location of several destabilizing influences in the region."
Exile leader Ahmed Chalabi said his Iraqi National Congress believes Saddam has taken refuge in a "long and big area" about 150 miles long from northeast of Baghdad to the Euphrates Valley west of the city.
Chalabi said he does not think Saddam is personally coordinating attacks but had put in motion a plan to fight U.S. forces after his ouster in April.
"There is some evidence that it was formulated in writing before the war started, for after the war," Chalabi said. "And I think that Saddam had this plan done, and it's being implemented by the remnants of his regime."
Officials told CNN more than 60 Iraqis have been taken into custody so far, along with a number of weapons and documents that may be of value to U.S. intelligence analysts probing the forces behind the attacks.
Last week, Lt. Gen. John Abizaid -- the Bush administration's pick to replace Gen. Tommy Franks as Central Command chief -- told a Senate committee that U.S. troops also face opposition from fighters from other Arab and Islamic nations who have converged on Iraq.
Another string of weekend raids was aimed at Islamic extremists in the northern city of Mosul, Central Command said.
Soldiers from the Army's 101st Airborne Division Saturday detained 15 people and seized four rifles, a pistol, a grenade and an artillery shell, along with Baath Party documents and Republican Guard uniforms.
Efforts to capture Saddam are more important than the pursuit of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said Sunday.
Speaking on CBS's "Face the Nation," McCain said: "There's very little doubt that there is at least some degree of organization amongst these activities that are going on, and there is no doubt that there are elements who are saying that Saddam will be back."
Mounting casualty figures
The most recent American casualties were two soldiers wounded when a convoy was attacked on a highway in Baghdad, U.S. military officials said. An Iraqi civilian was killed in the attack.
The Americans were assigned to the 18th Military Police Brigade, the official said. The extent of their wounds is unknown.
The convoy was hit by an unidentified explosive device as it traveled along Highway 8, a main road between Baghdad and the airport, a military official said.
It came just hours after U.S. soldiers guarding the Iraqi National Museum in Al Salihiya were attacked Saturday evening as a vehicle approached their position and then sped away.
Several Iraqi witnesses said two men driving a red Volkswagen threw grenades in an apparent attempt to hit a U.S. self-propelled Paladin howitzer positioned adjacent to small office building. There were no reports of casualties.
Two soldiers were found dead Saturday about 20 miles northwest of Baghdad after an exhaustive search using helicopters, armored vehicles and tanks,U.S. Central Command said.
Sgt. 1st Class Gladimir Philippe, 37, of Linden, New Jersey, and Pfc. Kevin Ott, 27, of Columbus, Ohio, were traveling in a Humvee near a checkpoint when military officials lost contact with them on Wednesday
Ott's brother-in-law, Jim Pack, said: "We understand very vividly that freedom is not free," Pack said. "The price is very high. And we understand that they have a job to do to ensure that freedom for us, and we are very proud of all of them."
It was not immediately clear how Ott and Philippe died, but 12 people have been detained in connection with the case, officials said.
The U.S. government is expected to classify their deaths as "hostile," raising to 23 the total number of U.S. troops killed by hostile fire in Iraq since the end of major combat was announced May 1. The six British troops all died in a single incident last week.
CNN correspondents Chris Plante and Nic Robertson contributed to this report.