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Attackers Ratchet Up Ambushes Against U.S. Forces

Attackers Ratchet Up Ambushes Against U.S. Forces

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Bomb and grenade ambushes and hostile fire Thursday killed two American soldiers and two Iraq civilians, signaling increased anti-American resistance in Iraq despite U.S. claims of mopping up opposition. Two American soldiers also were apparently abducted.

In the latest reported attack, a member of a U.S. special operations force was killed and eight were injured Thursday morning by hostile fire southwest of Baghdad, the U.S. military said, giving no further details.

Also Thursday, a bomb exploded on the Baghdad airport road, killing a U.S. soldier and injuring another, the U.S. military said. The road -- heavily used by U.S. forces -- has been the scene of several attacks using trip wires dangling from overpasses or grenades tossed from bridges.

In another ambush, assailants threw grenades at a U.S. and Iraqi civilian convoy in west Baghdad, killing two Iraqi employees of the national electricity authority, U.S. soldiers and Iraqi police said. The convoy had U.S. Humvees at the front and the back and two Iraqi civilian vehicles in the middle. The victims were traveling in the same car.

The fresh violence came a day after a U.S. Marine was killed while responding to an ambush in which three other Americans were wounded.

A U.S. military spokesman, Maj. William Thurmond, played down this week's violence as a "spike" and not a trend. Thurmond said the spate of ambushes could be a response to recent U.S. raids on Baath Party strongholds.

"There have been more attacks recently, but it's probably premature to say this is part of a pattern," Thurmond said. "We've kicked open the nests of some of these bad guys."

The U.S. military has blamed attacks on isolated remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime and his Sunni followers, claiming there was no organized resistance.

The Arab satellite station Al-Jazeera, however, aired statements Thursday from two previously unknown groups urging assaults on U.S.-led forces in Iraq.

One, by a group calling itself the Mujahedeen of the Victorious Sect, claimed responsibility for recent attacks and promised more. The other, by the Popular Resistance for the Liberation of Iraq, called for "revenge" against America.

Al-Jazeera said it could not verify the statements, and U.S. defense officials had no immediate comment.

Meanwhile, Pentagon officials in Washington said Thursday that two American soldiers apparently have been abducted.

The men and their Humvee were stationed at an observation post near the town of Balad, north of Baghdad, when they were noticed missing Wednesday night, according to officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A search by Apache attack helicopters was started as soon as they were noticed missing, one official said, declining to say how their absence was noticed.

In a separate incident Thursday, a U.S. Army truck sat smoldering at the side of a highway 20 miles south of Baghdad. People at the scene said it exploded as if struck by a rocket-propelled grenade. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

On Wednesday, ambushers threw grenades from a Baghdad overpass onto a passing convoy of Army Humvees, said Marine Corps Maj. Sean Gibson. There were no serious injuries.

The same day, militants ambushed Marines in Hillah, 45 miles south of Baghdad, wounding three troops. Later, one Marine was killed and two were wounded when their vehicle -- part of a quick-reaction force sent in response to the Hillah ambush -- rolled over on the road's soft shoulder en route to the scene.

The names of the American and Iraqi victims were not immediately released. The latest killings raised the American death toll to 196 since the start of the war on March 20. At least 20 U.S. soldiers have died as the result of hostile fire since major combat was declared over in May.

On Tuesday, violence in the southern Iraqi town of Majar al-Kabir killed six British soldiers and wounded eight British paratroopers. The British military Thursday blamed the violence involving the paratroopers partly on a misunderstanding over weapons searches.

Maj. Gen. Peter Wall said the violence probably was sparked when British paratroopers entered the town, 180 miles southeast of Baghdad, during a "routine joint patrol" with local militias. Townspeople mistakenly thought the patrol was going to search for weapons, he said.

However, Wall offered no explanation for an attack at a town police station later Tuesday, in which six Royal Military Police were killed, some reportedly shot with their own weapons. He said he could not comment on those claims while an investigation continued.

Local people told reporters that violence was triggered by anger over heavy-handed weapons searches in which soldiers used dogs and entered women's bedrooms in defiance of Muslim sensibilities.

In London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was asked whether it was a sensible tactic to try to disarm a nation where carrying weapons had become part of the culture.

Blair acknowledged that Iraq was in a "process of transformation," but added: "It is important that it is proper law enforcement authorities that carry weapons and not all the citizens of the country."

The violence in the town shattered the peace that had reigned in Shiite-dominated southern Iraq since the fall of Saddam. And the casualties marked the heaviest loss under fire for British troops in a single day since the 1991 Gulf War, raising the British death toll in the latest Iraqi conflict to 42.

British forces in Iraq have been reduced to 15,500 from 45,000 during the war; two-thirds of them are ground forces. The United States has brought home some 130,000 troops from the region; 146,000 American forces remain in Iraq.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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