BAGHDAD–July 15 (Reuters) – Iraq’s new US-backed Governing Council agreed on Tuesday to set up a war crimes tribunal that would try ousted President Saddam Hussein and his top associates–a spokesman for a key party in the council said.
As the number of American combat deaths neared the 1991 Gulf War total–the US military announced a new nationwide crackdown–Operation Soda Mountain–to eliminate armed Iraqi resistance and said its forces had killed five Iraqi fighters.
Washington blames attacks on its forces on supporters of Saddam–who disappeared during the US-led invasion. Thirty four people on a US list of 55 most-wanted Iraqis are either dead or in the hands of US and British forces.
"The United States has not declared until now what it’s going to do with the 55. The Governing Council will take it upon itself to try them and to punish them according to law,” said Entifadh Qanbar–spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress led by Governing Council member Ahmad Chalabi.
"That includes Saddam Hussein–the biggest criminal.”
He did not say whether Saddam would be tried in absentia.
Qanbar said the Council formed a commission to lay down laws that would allow it to put suspected war criminals on trial–including for mass killings–executions–and chemical attacks against Kurds in the 1980s.
Qanbar said the 25-member Council–formed on Sunday–had also decided to create a commission to look into ways to "uproot” Saddam’s once all-powerful Baath Party from Iraqi society.
Iraq’s US-led administration has banned the party and launched a de-Baathification process–sacking all senior party members from government jobs.
US forces are also trying to crush growing armed resistance and the military said troops had conducted 53 raids across Iraq–detaining 316 people and confiscating arms ammunition and explosives in Operation Soda Mountain launched on Saturday. Another operation–Ivy Serpent–is part of the crackdown.
US forces killed five Iraqis and captured another after they came under ambush while driving out of an ammunition depot–the commander of the unit involved said.
There were no US casualties in the ambush between the cities of Ramadi and Habbaniyah–about 100 km (60 miles) west of Baghdad in particularly hostile territory for US troops. Disappointed
Anti-American sentiment is also running high in the restive town of Falluja–where soldiers in the US 3rd Infantry Division said they were bitterly disappointed by a decision to keep them in Iraq indefinitely.
"It’s a big shock,” said Sergeant Josh Holt of Montgomery–Alabama.
Under fire and unwanted by Iraqis–the soldiers have already had a protracted stay in Iraq. The division was the first American unit to enter Baghdad during the war.
"It has been tough. I have had to take a seven-year-old child home whose father we killed in an exchange of fire,” said Holt. "The family just cried. They just cried. I am sure they will try to get revenge. That is the way it works in Iraq.”
In an abrupt about-turn–the US military said on Monday thousands of troops from the division would stay in Iraq until further notice instead of returning by September in line with an announcement made only last week.
On Tuesday the US Defense Department said it expected the entire division to be back home some time this autumn–but was unable to provide a specific timetable.
Thirty two US soldiers have been killed in Iraq since President George W. Bush declared major combat over on May 1.
A US soldier was killed in a Baghdad ambush on Monday–bringing the number of US troops killed in hostile action since the invasion began on March 20 to 146–one less than the 1991 war over Kuwait.