KHALIS, Iraq – Hundreds of U.S. forces launched a series of raids Tuesday to hunt down bandits, gangsters and Saddam Hussein (search) loyalists, capturing at least 24.
Meanwhile, the number of American troops killed in postwar Iraq (search) surpassed the toll of those killed in major combat, reaching 140 with the deaths of a soldier in a roadside bombing and another in a traffic accident.
When President Bush declared an end to major combat on May 1, the U.S. death toll stood at 138. Since then, 140 more soldiers have died, counting both deaths announced Tuesday. The total number of U.S. soldiers killed since the Iraq war began on March 20 is 278.
"We're on the offensive against terror, and we will stay on the offensive against terror," Bush told an American Legion (search) conference in St. Louis. "We've adopted a new strategy for a new kind of war: We will not wait for known enemies to strike us again," he said. "We will strike them."
One of the soldiers killed Tuesday was riding in a support convoy hit by a bomb in the town of Hamariyah, 16 miles northwest of Baghdad, the military announced. Two other soldiers were wounded in that attack. The other U.S. fatality was a soldier who was struck by an Iraqi motorist while changing a flat in a convoy from Tikrit to a forward base, the military said.
In another incident, a third soldier was taken to a military hospital with an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The two dozen suspected Iraqi criminals were swept up near Baqouba, 42 miles north of Baghdad, in "Operation Ivy Needle," a campaign launched by the 4th Infantry Division.
Hundreds of troops, backed by helicopters, tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles chased a convicted murderer and gangster named Lateef Hamed al-Kubaishat (search) -- known as Lateef by U.S. forces, said Col. David Hogg, commander of the 4th Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade.
Lateef escaped capture, but the military said it caught seven men it was seeking and seized arms. A later raid on the home of a gunrunner, netted three men after troops surrounded the house. The three suspects tried to flee, with one firing a heavy machine gun, but he was wounded in the leg.
"Their primary focus is probably criminal activity, but they have attacked coalition forces through direct and indirect means," Hogg told The Associated Press. "As long as he (Lateef) is in place, we will not be able to establish the conditions for the Iraqi police to establish law and order in the area."
The gang claimed responsibility for a bomb that exploded outside police headquarters in Baqouba on Aug. 10, killing one U.S. military policeman, U.S. forces said. Lateef is also accused of selling weapons, burning down the Baqouba courthouse to destroy criminal records, and murdering a prostitute whom he accused of fraternizing with U.S. troops in the area.
Lateef was imprisoned and serving multiple life sentences for murder until Saddam granted amnesty to all prisoners in October as the United States ratcheted up its case for invading Iraq, according to U.S. intelligence officers.
Ivy Needle was designed to neutralize paramilitary forces, Saddam loyalists, Fedayeen Saddam militia and other subversive elements, said 4th Infantry spokeswoman Maj. Josslyn Aberle.
No U.S. soldiers were reported killed or injured in the operations.
They consist of "surgical strikes on remote areas throughout the 4th ID area of responsibility, where in the past we haven't had enduring military presence," Aberle said.
In other raids, U.S. troops detained 22 people in northern and eastern Iraq, Aberle said. Of those, two had been targeted as ex-regime loyalists, five were suspected of planning attacks against coalition forces, and 13 others were arrested for trying to loot the former Iraqi military's ammunition dumps around Tikrit.
In Iraq's second holiest Shiite city, Karbala, Marine Lt. Col. Matthew Lopez handed over command to Bulgarian Lt. Col. Petko Marinov, whose 250-member force will begin patrolling the city. The Bulgarian soldiers are part of a larger, 9,500-member international force led by Poland that will try to secure the zone in south-central Iraq that has been under the control of U.S. Marines.
A formal hand-over to a Polish commander for the entire zone will take place Sept. 3.
Polish forces, however, have already come under attack. Several mortar shells were fired at a Polish base in Karbala on Monday night, missing their target and causing no damage or injuries, Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski said in Warsaw.
"Those were warning shots indicating that there are still people ready to fight for Saddam Hussein's ideas," Szmajdzinski said.