Bombings, suicide attacks kill 6 U.S. soldiers in Iraq

Troops push for control as Ramadan anxiety builds

October 14, 2004|By Ashraf Khalil | Ashraf Khalil,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Six U.S. soldiers were reported killed in attacks in the capital and in the northern city of Mosul over a 24-hour period as anxiety mounted over a feared wave of insurgent violence during the sacred Muslim month of Ramadan, which begins this week.

A pair of roadside bombs in Baghdad killed four U.S. soldiers and a car bomb attack on a convoy in Mosul killed two and injured five, the military announced yesterday.

Fearing an upsurge in violence, U.S. troops and the interim Iraqi government have boosted efforts to establish control over insurgent strongholds before Ramadan. Last year, the month was marred by a series of bloody attacks.

A combined force of 800 U.S. soldiers and Iraqi security forces launched simultaneous raids yesterday morning near Baqouba, about 25 miles northeast of the capital.

"We're expecting a bit of an increase in activity in Ramadan. So we're just trying to clean the area out as a preventive measure," said Army Capt. Marshall Jackson, spokesman for the 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division.

In a speech yesterday before the Iraqi National Council, interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi issued an ultimatum to the town of Fallujah. He threatened a large-scale military offensive unless residents handed over militant leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has claimed responsibility for beheading several foreign hostages and has long been suspected of operating from the town.

"We have asked Fallujah residents to turn over al-Zarqawi and his group. If they don't do it, we are ready for major operations," Allawi said.

The military and political push for control comes as residents are bracing for another violent Ramadan - which will begin either tomorrow or Saturday, depending on when the new crescent moon is sighted.

One of the centerpieces of the Muslim calendar, Ramadan is typically marked by public celebration and religious introspection.

In the days leading up to Ramadan, insurgents have shown no signs of letting up. Islamic militants posted a video on the Internet yesterday showing the beheading of two Iraqis accused by their captors of being Iraqi government intelligence agents, the Associated Press reported.

The two men, who had identified themselves as Fadhel Ibrahim and Firas Ismail, said they were government intelligence officers kidnapped Sept. 28 on Haifa Street - an insurgent stronghold in Baghdad.

Last year, Ramadan brought a bloody escalation in Iraq's less-entrenched insurgency as a series of coordinated car bomb attacks rattled Baghdad.

"We are of course aware of the precedent from last year and the intensification of attacks, but we maintain at all times the highest state of alert," a U.S. Embassy official said.

This year, extra police patrols will be deployed in high-traffic public areas and around police stations and major religious shrines, said Raad Yas, head of the Baghdad police force's major-crimes division.

Members of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia continued to turn over heavy weapons yesterday as part of a fledgling peace agreement.

"In return we are prepared to carry out our promises by releasing prisoners and stopping military operations in Sadr City," Yas said, "but that does require that the other side keep its promises."

Fallujah remains outside government control, with U.S. troops remaining on its outskirts while launching regular airstrikes on suspected insurgent safe houses. Allawi's ultimatum to the city came as negotiations continued between the government and Fallujah representatives.

Allawi did not set a deadline to turn over al-Zarqawi, but the long-anticipated offensive against the city may be held off until after Ramadan. In recent days, Bush administration officials have said they plan to delay major assaults on rebel-held cities until after the U.S. presidential election, which will occur during Ramadan.

Hisham Abdel Fatah, a police officer who lives in Fallujah, predicted that insurgents "will see any operations in Ramadan as blessed" and will escalate their campaign to destabilize the interim government.

Meanwhile, several weeks after two major reports detailed the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison, The New York Times reported in today's editions that the Pentagon is reviewing whether to reopen an inquiry into the case of four Iraqis who said they were abused in January at a U.S. base in Iraq.

The case of the Iraqi men, employees of Western news organizations, was dismissed by the Pentagon months before the abuse at Abu Ghraib was first reported. The case, which involves reports of practices similar to those carried out at Abu Ghraib, could provide evidence that maltreatment of prisoners occurred elsewhere in Iraq.

The Iraqis, who were arrested Jan. 2 after trying to report on the downing of a U.S. helicopter near Fallujah, said they were physically abused while being held for almost three days at Forward Operating Base Volturno. They said soldiers hit them, deprived them of sleep and made them assume painful positions. They said they were threatened with sexual assault and photographed while being forced to simulate sex acts.

Lawrence Di Rita, a Defense Department spokesman, said that civilian and military lawyers at the Pentagon were reviewing the case to determine whether more review in Washington was necessary. Until now, the Pentagon has deferred to the commanders in the field and their investigations.

Di Rita said it was likely to be a matter of days before the lawyers decided what, if anything, to do next.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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