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KHALIS, Iraq (AP) -- The toll of U.S. troops killed in postwar Iraq surpassed the number killed in major combat on Tuesday, reaching 139 with the death of a soldier in a roadside bombing.
Two other soldiers were wounded when the bomb hit a support convoy in the town of Hamariyah, 16 miles northwest of Baghdad, the military announced.
The incident brought the death toll since May 1, when President Bush declared an end to major combat, to one more than the number of troops who died during heavy fighting before that date. Since the war began March 20, 277 U.S. forces have died.
Hundreds of U.S. soldiers raided a northern town on Tuesday in a bid to smash a crime ring wanted for murder, gunrunning and a terrorist attack on a police station that killed an American soldier earlier this month.
Backed by tanks, helicopters and Bradley fighting vehicles, the soldiers stormed Khalis, 42 miles north of Baghdad, hunting for the gang's notorious leader, Lateef Hamed al Kubaishat -- known as Lateef by U.S. forces, said Col. David Hogg, commander of the 4th Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade.
Soldiers caught 24 members of the "terrorist organization" but Lateef appeared to have eluded capture, Hogg said.
"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 the police headquarters in nearby 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 providing services to U.S. troops in the area.
Lateef was imprisoned and serving multiple life sentences for murder until Saddam Hussein granted amnesty to all prisoners in October as the United States ratcheted up its case for invading Iraq, according to U.S. intelligence officers.
U.S. Army officers in the area have said they are being attacked by Baath Party loyalists, Fedayeen Saddam militia fighters and criminal gangs who simply want the region to remain unstable so they can carryout their activities unhindered.
"This operation will go a long way to show the Iraqi population that we are doing this for them. It's part of our mission to provide a safe and secure environment so they can continue to build government structures and security structures," Hogg said.
In Baghdad, thousands of Shiite Muslims protested peacefully Monday night outside the headquarters of the U.S.-led coalition, charging the occupation force was lax on security and did too little to stop a weekend of ethnic bloodshed in the north and the bombing at the house of an important Muslim Shiite cleric in the south.
The Baghdad protest moved, after about an hour, to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan office in Baghdad. The protesters alleged the Kurdish organization started the fighting Friday night in Tuz Kharmato and continued attacks on Turkomen tribesmen the next day in Kirkuk, 115 miles north of Baghdad. Eleven people died.
The protesters dispersed quietly, ahead of the 11 p.m. Baghdad curfew.
The Baghdad protesters, mainly from the Sadr City slum, had sided with the Turkomen, also Shiites. A PUK spokesman in Baghdad told The Associated Press the violence was the work of Saddam Hussein sympathizers trying to complicate the already tense security situation in the country by adding the specter of ethnic and religious violence to the mix. Kurds are predominantly Sunni Muslims.
In Najaf on Monday, mourners buried three guards who were killed in a bomb attack Sunday on the house of Mohammed Saeed al-Hakim, one of Iraq's most important Muslim Shiite clerics. The bomb, a gas cylinder wired to explode, was placed along the outside wall of the house. A number of al-Hakim's family members were wounded. He suffered cuts on his neck.
More than a thousand mourners jammed the streets in Najaf calling for revenge against the attackers, whose identities were not known. The demonstrators blamed U.S. forces for failing to provide security in the town. Iraqi newspapers reported last week that Mohammed Saeed al-Hakim, who was under house arrest during the last days of Saddam's rule, had received threats against his life.
In Amman, Jordan, on Monday, members of Iraq's U.S.-backed Governing Council asked skeptical Arab leaders to judge them by their actions, and promised to make way for an elected government as quickly as possible.
Council members are on a tour of the Gulf region to bolster official Arab support for the interim authority's role in post-Saddam Iraq.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)