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U.S. Commander in Iraq Reports Increase in Attacks

U.S. Commander in Iraq Reports Increase in Attacks

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Ambush bombers struck Wednesday in the center of Baghdad and in the tense Sunni Muslim area west of the capital, as the commander of American forces reported an increase in attacks against occupation troops.

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

During a press conference, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, confirmed an increase in the number of attacks on American troops. Sanchez said the average of 20 to 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 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, 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 ousted President Saddam Hussein.

During years of Shiite suppression under Saddam, 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 tunnel under Tayeran Square, already crowded 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.

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

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

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

The witnesses who saw Americans evacuated could not determine the extent of the injuries. After looting an abandoned vehicle, residents set it on fire as one man fired pistol shots into the wreckage in a sign of contempt.

Meanwhile, in Khaldiyah, just west of Fallujah, hundreds of Iraqis protested 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 attacks on the U.S. occupation army came as Washington prepared for a conference in Madrid on Thursday and Friday to win international aid to rebuild Iraq -- help the Americans hope will eventually be accompanied by foreign troop reinforcements.

Sanchez acknowledged Wednesday that he was concerned over the coalition's rate of progress in restoring order.

"We are making progress, but we need to accelerate it, and accomplish it across all lines of operation -- economic, political, security," the U.S. commander said. "Once we get economic progress and law and order capacity built in the country, that will go a long ways toward re-establishing a safe and secure environment in Iraq. If we get unemployed back to working, that will contribute to eliminating some of the anti-coalition forces throughout the country. Those are really key things."

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

Endorsed by 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.

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

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

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