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Mortar Attack Kills Two U.S. Soldiers

Mortar Attack Kills Two U.S. Soldiers

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- A barrage of mortar fire struck a U.S. military encampment in central Iraq, killing two American soldiers and critically wounding a third, the military said Thursday.

In separate incidents, gunmen ambushed a vehicle carrying Iraqi women who worked in the laundry at a U.S. military base, killing four of them, and the security chief of Spanish troops was wounded during a raid south of the capital.

Also Thursday, gunmen firing from a van killed two Iraqi policemen and wounded three others in an attack on a checkpoint between Fallujah and Ramadi, and the 23-year-old son of a former senior official from Saddam Hussein's Baath party was slain by an unidentified attacker in the southern city of Basra, police said.

Maj. Josslyn Aberle, spokeswoman for the 4th Infantry Division, said insurgents fired mortars and rockets at a U.S. military encampment outside the town of Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, on Wednesday evening, killing the two soldiers and critically wounding another.

The three soldiers were standing outside the tactical operations center when the barrage hit, she said. The attack also damaged vehicles.

U.S. forces launched a counterattack but there was no indication the insurgents were hit, she said.

The two deaths raised to 505 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the U.S.-led coalition launched the Iraq war March 20.

The commander of the 4th Infantry Division said Thursday that fighters linked to Saddam's regime "have been brought to their knees," but that he fears other Iraqis are taking up the battle out of a sense of nationalism.

Those fighters "really just want Iraqis to run their own country," said Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno. He said those elements "are going to try to use Iraqi nationalism to say we need to get the Americans and the coalition forces out of Iraq, and they will continue to attack us."

The attack on the laundry workers took place Wednesday in Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, when the nine women were being driven to work, said Khajiq Serkis, the driver who was shot in the leg.

He told The Associated Press from his hospital bed that he was part of a three-car convoy being chased by the four attackers in a Opel sedan, their faces covered by scarves. Serkis said his minibus lagged behind and the gunmen shot the tires before firing indiscriminately at the occupants.

Four women were killed and the other five were injured in addition to Serkis, said police Col. Sabbar Fadhel.

Most of the women were dozing when the shooting started, said a survivor, Vera Ibrahim, 39.

All the victims, who were Armenian or Assyrian Christians, worked at a nearby U.S. military base in Habbaniyah. The women worked in the laundry and Serkis was employed as a mechanic and driver.

"If they were real men, they would have attacked men ... not poor women," said Seita Noubar, a sister of one of the victims, Sona Noubar, 50.

Former Baath party members and other Saddam loyalists are believed to be behind most of the guerrilla attacks against the U.S.-led coalition forces, often setting off car bombs and roadside explosives that have killed hundreds of Iraqi men and women.

In the city of Diwaniya, 120 miles south of Baghdad, Spanish Civil Guard commander Gonzalo Perez Garcia was shot in the head Thursday after a pre-dawn raid with Iraqi police at the home of a suspected terrorist leader, according to a Spanish Defense Ministry statement in Madrid. He was taken to a U.S. military hospital in Baghdad in a serious condition.

U.S. forces have struggled to bring peace to Iraq in time for the planned handover of power to a transitional Iraqi government on July 1.

The plan calls for selecting a legislature through caucuses in Iraq's 18 provinces in May, and that legislature then would appoint a provisional government to prepare for full elections in 2005. The plan has run into opposition from Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, whose demand for early elections has found wide support among Iraqis.

On Wednesday, Shiite leaders and coalition officials signaled flexibility on holding early elections, with both sides suggesting they will follow any U.N. recommendation, officials said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said he is considering sending a team to Iraq to assess whether direct legislative elections can be held before the July 1 handover.

Britain, the staunchest ally of the United States, said Thursday that accelerating the timetable for elections in Iraq would be "difficult."

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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