MOSUL, Iraq — Saddam Hussein's defense minister surrendered to U.S. forces Friday after lengthy negotiations the Americans hope will convince other former soldiers to abandon support for the ousted regime. U.S. soldiers beat back Saddam loyalists after some of the fiercest and best-coordinated attacks by the insurgents in months.
The ambushes in Saddam's birthplace, near Tikrit, killed three American soldiers and wounded two others, and U.S. forces swooped in and imprisoned 58 Iraqis, including some of those involved in the attacks, the military said.
The former defense minister, Gen. Sultan Hashim Ahmad, gave up to Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne Brigade and the senior U.S. officer in the north, at the U.S. headquarters in Mosul, 240 miles north of Baghdad.
Dawood Bagistani, the Kurdish mediator who arranged the surrender, said Ahmad was received with "with great respect" as part of a deal in which the Americans agreed to remove the ex-defense minister from their list of the 55 most-wanted regime figures. That means Ahmad would be released after he finishes questioning and would not face prolonged captivity or trial, Bagistani said.
Ahmad, the eight of hearts in the deck of playing cards of Iraqi fugitives, was No. 27 on the most-wanted list. Thirty-eight of that group are now in custody and 14 remain at large. Three are either dead or thought to be dead.
On the eve of the surrender, Col. Joe Anderson, commander of the 101st Airborne's 1st Brigade, appeared on Mosul television and said Ahmad would be treated "with dignity and respect and be allowed the opportunity to explain his former situation."
Ahmad's younger brother, Abdullah, said the family had wanted such a public declaration by the Americans before agreeing to surrender. "We hope that America, this great power, will keep its promise," Abdullah said.
The special treatment for Ahmad appeared to be an effort to defuse the guerrilla-style attacks that are taking a toll on U.S. soldiers. Many of the attackers are thought to be former soldiers in Saddam's army, and seeing their former military leader well-treated by the Americans might encourage them to abandon their insurgency. It could also win points for the Americans among local tribes, whose leaders wanted Ahmad to be well-treated.
"We are certain that they will let him go," said one tribal chief, Sheik Bader Suheil al-Zaydi. He said Ahmad was a good man who served only his country and not Saddam's Baath Party.
Ongoing attacks by Iraqi insurgents, four months after President Bush declared an end to major combat in Iraq, have raised doubts about the effectiveness of U.S. policy in post-Saddam Iraq even as Washington is asking its allies for thousands of troops to ease the burden on the Americans.
Although Ahmad's surrender may help boost America's image in some quarters, overnight fighting around Saddam's hometown Tikrit demonstrates that U.S. forces still face stubborn resistance in some areas where allegiance to the former regime remains strong. The spokeswoman for the 4th Infantry Division, Maj. Josslyn Aberle, said the latest attacks were among the most intense and coordinated since American soldiers arrived in the area in April.
On Saturday U.S. tanks and armored fighting vehicles rumbled through Saddam's hometown and its outskirts in a show of force following Thursday's attacks against American forces that killed three soldiers and wounded two.
The patrol began late Friday and ended early Saturday. Except for the display of firepower, it was also aimed at flushing out any pockets of armed resistance in the area.
Thursday night's attack began as soldiers were sealing off parts of the nearby village of Uja, where Saddam was born, to conduct a raid against Iraqi resistance cells. Gunmen in a white pickup opened fire on an observation post, followed by a deadly rocket and small arms attack on a patrol, which caused the casualties.
Insurgents also launched almost simultaneous attacks against two nearby bases using rocket propelled grenades, small arms and heavy machine guns. The Americans responded with armored vehicles, attack helicopter and mechanized infantry gunfire in fighting that lasted until dawn, according to Col. James Hickey, commander the division's 1st Brigade.
He said 58 Iraqi men of "military age" were captured, including those believed involved in the attack on the patrol. He said the attacks showed remarkable coordination.
In new fighting Friday, U.S. soldiers blew the gate off a wall at the Saddam mosque compound in Tikrit after a rocket-propelled grenade was fired from somewhere in the vicinity, imam Yehiya Ibrahim told The Associated Press.
Although U.S. troops come under attack frequently in Tikrit, Hickey said the overnight attacks were unusual because of the intensity and length. "We have seen instances of coordinated attacks two times in the past out of the scores of ambushes. But this one was coordinated and this something that worrying us and we are paying attention to it," Hickey said.
Hickey said the military had received some warning that an attack was imminent and had increased its alert level. He said the large number of Iraqis detained was a direct consequence of the warning.
"Our reaction was faster than anticipated. They were sealed off," he said.
The attackers, he added, were what remained of Saddam loyalists carrying out attacks in the area.
"It's a handful, a rearguard that's attempting to maintain a degree of political relevance here. We're going to finish these guys off," Hickey said.
In Rome, an Italian Foreign Ministry official said U.S. soldiers in northern Iraq fired Thursday into a car carrying the Italian official heading U.S. efforts to recover looted antiquities, killing the man's Iraqi interpreter. The Italian, Pietro Cordone, was unhurt in the shooting at a roadblock between Mosul and Tikrit, the Foreign Ministry official said.
The Foreign Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it appeared the car's driver did not understand the signals that the American troops were giving, and that the American's didn't understand what the car was trying to do.
In Baghdad, U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. George Krivo said he had received only "sketchy, initial reports" about the incident and expected to comment in full later.
Associated Press writer Patrick Quinn in Tikrit contributed to this report.