BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraq's interim leaders appealed yesterday for those waging a campaign of insurgency against the U.S.-led occupation to cease provocations and take advantage of "a spirit of forgiveness" that will allow them to reconcile with their Iraqi brothers.
The Iraqi Governing Council held out an olive branch to those it said had been deceived by deposed dictator Saddam Hussein, calling on them to "desist from acts of violence and return to the fold of the Iraqi people."
Meanwhile, officers of the Army's 1st Armored Division determined that a pre-dawn truck explosion that killed 12 people was probably an accident and not an act of terrorism.
In Samarra, a city at the heart of pro-Hussein guerrilla warfare, more than 2,000 U.S.-led coalition troops, tanks and armored vehicles from the 4th Infantry Division launched a sweep through the insurgent stronghold in a major operation, code-named Ivy Blizzard, to kill or capture Hussein supporters, religious extremists and foreign fighters who have stepped up their provocations since his arrest near Tikrit on Saturday.
Samarra is in the so-called Sunni triangle, the region north of Baghdad dominated by minority Sunni Muslims, the bedrock of Hussein's 24 years in power. The anti-U.S. insurgency, which has killed nearly 200 American soldiers since President Bush declared an end to major combat operations May 1, is concentrated in the area, and support for the former dictator remains strong there.
U.S. military commanders began a series of operations Sunday to capture those on the list who hadn't already gone into hiding, including three former generals believed to have been financing and overseeing guerrilla attacks in the Baghdad area.
The raids in Samarra began Tuesday with the arrests of 79 suspected resistance members, including a suspected guerrilla leader, during a meeting in a building in which they apparently were planning attacks.
"We think it was a complete cell we caught," Maj. Gen. Raymond Ordierno, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, said yesterday in the northern city of Kirkuk.
U.S. troops also seized two significant arms caches yesterday near Ramadi, including surface-to-air missiles, more than 200 artillery and mortar rounds, and dozens of antitank mines.
In hopes of luring some Hussein loyalists to the side of Iraq's postwar rebuilding effort, the Governing Council issued a formal call for insurgents to "prove their loyalty to the nation so that they may be embraced by their generous brothers."
"The Governing Council stresses the need for a spirit of forgiveness in order to rebuild national unity on solid foundations which disavow violence and vengeance and focus on rebuilding an Iraq of justice, peace and prosperity," said council member Mouwafak al-Rabii, reading from an official proclamation of the 25-member body.
Noting that top figures of the deposed Baath Party would be put on trial as war criminals, the Iraqi leaders sought to assure Hussein loyalists at large that they would be dealt with fairly.
Council members stopped short of offering amnesty, reflecting the limited authority the interim government wields. U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III has the final word on any decisions regarding arrests, detentions and day-to-day affairs in Iraq until a planned July 1 handover of sovereignty.
"There is no need for amnesty for those who haven't committed any crimes against humanity," said Adnan Pachachi, acting president of the council. "They have simply to turn themselves in and express their willingness to participate with other Iraqis in the reconstruction of our country. Only those who committed war crimes will be sent to the special tribunal."
Pachachi and al-Rabii were among the Iraqi officials who briefly visited Hussein in his cell Sunday and asked him about some of the more heinous atrocities attributed to his administration. They described Hussein as having been kept abreast of insurgent attacks during his eight months on the run from coalition forces but hardly in any position to direct them.
The council members said Hussein is likely to face war crimes charges before a tribunal to which only Iraqi judges will be appointed.
Because of the time it will take to prepare the case against him and the desire of most Iraqis to see him face the death penalty, which has been suspended during coalition rule, the trial and sentencing are unlikely to start before the July 1 handover, they said.
Al-Rabii confirmed that Hussein remained jailed in Baghdad, contrary to reports that he had been transferred to a U.S. interrogation center in Qatar.
Iraqi officials have come in for criticism by human rights advocates for designing a tribunal the foreign analysts consider vulnerable to accusations of "victors' justice."
But Pachachi insisted that the Iraqi tribunal would call in foreign experts and advisers as needed, dismissing the criticism of agencies such as New York-based Human Rights Watch.