Soldiers killed on base in western Iraq

3 U.S.

Aid worker dies elsewhere as sectarian tensions swell

April 18, 2005|By Patrick J. McDonnell | Patrick J. McDonnell,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Three U.S. soldiers were killed in a mortar strike on a U.S. base in the restive western city of Ramadi, authorities said yesterday, as sectarian tensions flared between Sunni and Shiite Muslims about reported clashes in a religiously mixed area south of the capital.

The incidents, capping a week of resurgent attacks, underscored the precarious security situation more than two years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Renewed violence has dampened a mood of cautious optimism that had begun to take hold after a drop off in attacks in recent weeks that accompanied efforts by newly elected lawmakers to form a transitional government.

"The new government should deal with these criminal and terrorist pockets, which have grown to constitute a real threat to our political march," declared Jawad Maliki, one of many leading Shiite Muslim lawmakers to condemn reports of mass kidnappings of Shiites south of the capital.

Efforts to name a government have stalled since the landmark January elections. The victorious Shiite and Kurdish factions have struggled to agree and also mollify the long-dominant Sunni minority, which largely stayed away from the polls and is severely under-represented in the new parliament. Disillusioned Sunnis are thought to represent the backbone of the insurgency that has battled U.S. and allied troops here.

An insurgent mortar strike late Saturday killed three U.S. soldiers and injured seven others at a U.S. base in Ramadi, a Sunni stronghold that has been among the most violent places in Iraq. The assailants fled into a nearby mosque, a U.S. statement said.

Attacks against U.S. forces have declined since the election, officials say, but at least five U.S. troops were killed in separate attacks over the weekend, including the three in Ramadi. U.S. forces in much of Iraq generally venture outside the walls of their compounds only in heavily guarded convoys or in large groups.

Iraqi security forces and civilians, lacking the armor and firepower of U.S. units, have borne the brunt of insurgent attacks.

The departing prime minister, Ayad Allawi, condemned what he called "savage, criminal and dirty atrocities" taking place in the town of Madain, 15 miles south of the capital.

But the exact nature of what has been unfolding in Madain remained unclear yesterday. Local news reports said that anywhere from a handful to more than 100 Shiites had been kidnapped in recent days, and that Shiites had been warned to leave the area.

However, some Sunni and Shiite leaders suggested that the reports had been exaggerated. The abductions may be part of a pattern of retaliatory kidnappings that have troubled the volatile and religiously divided zone south of the capital, a transition zone between the nation's Sunni-dominated center and the Shiite heartland to the south.

The conflicting accounts could not be independently verified. The roads leading south from Baghdad are among the most dangerous in a national road network beset by armed assaults and kidnappings.

Officials said hundreds of Iraqi troops had been dispatched to the Madain area.

Elsewhere in Iraq yesterday, insurgents killed at least eight Iraqis in attacks across the country aimed at police and other employees of the U.S.-backed interim government.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said yesterday that an American aid worker was killed by a suicide car bomber.

Marla Ruzicka, 28, was on her way to the airport Saturday afternoon when the bomber targeted a U.S. convoy, said Adam Hobson, an embassy spokesman. Four people died and five were wounded in the explosion, Hobson said.

No other details were available, Hobson said, but Ruzicka's death was a reminder that many of the dead here are noncombatants. The organization Ruzicka founded three years ago, Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, provided assistance to the families of people killed or injured during U.S. military campaigns both here and in Afghanistan.

"She went from being just an anti-war activist to someone who realized that the war was a reality and that people needed to be helped because of it," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, who credited Ruzicka with helping secure U.S. government funds to compensate Iraqi and Afghan civilians hurt by U.S. military operations. "You hear of that occasional thing where one person makes a real difference," Leahy said. "This is an example. She accomplished what large organizations don't accomplish. ... In my mind she is a real hero."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press and Knight Ridder contributed to this article.

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