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Baghdad Tunnel Blast Slightly Injures Two U.S. Soldiers

Baghdad Tunnel Blast Slightly Injures Two U.S. Soldiers

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Iraq's ambush bombers struck Wednesday in the center of Baghdad and in the tense Sunni Muslim area west of the capital, rocking U.S. Army convoys with roadside bombs.

The attack in Baghdad inflicted only light casualties, a U.S. officer at the scene reported. Witnesses said four Americans were carried away on stretchers in an attack on a three-vehicle convoy on the western end of the flashpoint city of Fallujah, but there was no comment from U.S. officials. Local residents cheered and looted one of the vehicles abandoned in the attack.

The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, confirmed an increase in the number of attacks on American troops. Sanchez told reporters Wednesday that the average of 20-25 attacks daily had increased over the last three weeks "to a peak of 35 attacks a day." He did not elaborate.

In the north, U.S. troops of the 4th Infantry Division staged overnight raids around the cities of Tikrit and Baqouba. U.S. officers said an Iraqi major general, who was not identified, was seized in the Baqouba operation.

Ten suspects, including six "targeted individuals," were detained in the Tikrit area, the U.S. military said.

In the southern city of Najaf, a small band of gunmen staged a midnight attack on the headquarters of a leading Shiite Muslim political organization, but no casualties were reported in the firefight, said a spokesman for the group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

The spokesman, who identified himself as Abu Ahmed, said four of six attackers were captured and admitted they were loyalists of the Baath Party of deposed President Saddam Hussein.

During years of Shiite suppression under Saddam's Baathist regime, the SCIRI group fueled opposition to the Baghdad government from exile. Since Saddam's fall last April, it has taken a prominent role in the postwar political transition inside Iraq.

The homemade bomb in Baghdad exploded as a three-Humvee convoy passed through a road tunnel under Tayeran Square, already teeming with Iraqis at 6:45 a.m. The blast, whose sound reverberated through central Baghdad, lightly wounded two 1st Armored Division soldiers and damaged a Humvee, the division's Capt. Tommy Leslie said afterward.

Local residents said U.S. Army convoys had been repeatedly targeted in the tunnel.

"It's always the same," said traffic policeman Adnan Khadim, 43, assigned to the area. "They should stop using the tunnel."

A U.S. Army Humvee could be seen burning on the western edge of the city, where one American paratrooper was killed and six were wounded in an ambush Monday. Witnesses said a roadside bomb exploded Wednesday morning as a three-vehicle convoy passed.

Four Americans were evacuated on stretchers, but witnesses could not determine the extent of the injuries. After looting an abandoned vehicle, local residents set it on fire.

Meanwhile, in Khaldiyah, just west of Fallujah, hundreds of Iraqis protested Wednesday to demand the release of two women arrested in raids this week. Protesters said U.S. troops raided the home of a former Iraqi army officer but when they failed to find him, they detained his wife and mother. There was no comment from U.S. officials.

The continuing resistance attacks on the U.S. occupation army produced no new reported casualties Tuesday or early Wednesday, as Washington prepared for a pivotal conference in Madrid on Thursday and Friday to win international aid to rebuild Iraq -- help that the Americans hope will eventually be accompanied by foreign troop reinforcements.

In Najaf, the SCIRI spokesman said guards returned fire after the main office in the city center came under attack around midnight Tuesday, and the fighting lasted about an hour. The situation in Najaf was reported calm later Wednesday morning.

The alleged Baathist attack was a shift from the kind of violence troubling Iraq's majority Shiite community, whose newly resurgent political-religious organizations have been vying for power and control of mosques.

In the latest development in that inter-Shiite violence, Iraqi police backed by U.S. coalition troops raided a mosque before dawn Tuesday in the holy city of Karbala, arresting dozens in a clampdown on Shiite Muslim militants.

The Karbala trouble began a week ago over ownership of a bus, but reflects a power struggle between armed followers of militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who demands an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and gunmen loyal to religious leaders who take a more moderate stand toward the Americans.

Al-Sadr's group occupied a mosque in the shrine city amid clashes that officials of the U.S.-led coalition said left three Iraqis dead and 50 wounded.

With the endorsement of Karbala's senior clerics, Iraq's interim Governing Council decided to take action against the al-Sadr forces, said interim Interior Minister Nori al-Badran.

"All the gunmen surrendered with their weapons. Twenty-one people were arrested. Another 20 guarding outside the mosque were arrested, too," he said.

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

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