BAGHDAD, Iraq -- U.S. and Iraqi forces acting on a tip about an al-Qaida cell stormed a house in a middle-class neighborhood of Mosul and, after a six-hour clash, all eight people inside were dead -- including three who killed themselves with vest bombs, a police general said yesterday. Four Iraqi police also died.
Authorities were trying to determine whether any of those killed was Iraq's No.1 terror suspect, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq.
In Washington, U.S. officials said they had no indication that al-Zarqawi had been killed or captured, and that efforts to identify the dead were inconclusive as of yesterday evening. Officials said fingerprints, DNA and other forensic evidence would be cross-matched with similar identifiers, including al-Zarqawi's, in U.S. intelligence databases.
The Pentagon had received no information suggesting that al-Zarqawi had been killed or even targeted in a U.S. military operation, according to Defense Department chief spokesman Lawrence Di Rita.
"I just have no reason to believe that any of these reports we are getting are accurate," Di Rita said. He noted that similar reports about the capture of al-Zarqawi and other militants have proved false in the past.
Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian blamed for a long string of attacks -- most recently, three nearly simultaneous suicide bombings at hotels in Jordan this month -- has been the target of a large hunt inside Iraq.
A Jordanian national who fought in Afghanistan, al-Zarqawi had established a fundamentalist Islamic enclave in northern Iraq before the U.S. invasion. In the months after U.S. forces arrived, he emerged as the leader of Islamist resistance to the U.S. presence.
Al-Zarqawi has eluded U.S. forces for more than two years in spite of a $25 million reward offered by American officials for information leading to his death or capture.
After Saturday's gunbattle, Nineveh Gov. Duraid Kishmoula told reporters in Mosul that al-Zarqawi was believed to have been inside the house. He later retracted that statement, however.
But speculation that al-Zarqawi might have been killed began circulating with a report on at least one Arabic-language Web site.
The firefight took place in the Hay al Sokkar neighborhood of northeast Mosul. Alaa Zeyor, who lives on the street behind the house, told the Los Angeles Times that the property had been vacant for about five months with a for-rent sign outside. In the past two weeks, someone had moved in, she said, noting that her brother had seen a woman and a child there. But in all respects, the house seemed normal, she said.
According to Zeyor, Iraqi police and American troops cordoned off the house at 9 a.m. Saturday, sparking a ferocious battle that lasted until 3 p.m., when explosions shook the house and collapsed parts of its brick walls.
Some Mosul residents said the intensity of the assault reminded them of the raid on a house in another part of the city that ended in the deaths of former President Saddam Hussein's two sons, Uday and Qusai.
The house was blockaded by police yesterday, but a Times correspondent in Mosul could see through the broken walls into the kitchen. There was blood on the ground and shell casings from what appeared to be heavy machine guns.
Police said it had been a terrorist hide-out and said the fighting had left four Iraqi police dead.
"We received reports about a house in the Sokkar area that had some terrorists inside, and they had a lot of ammunition," said police Brig. Sayeed Ahmad. "So we went to the place and asked residents to evacuate the street and the nearby houses."
From the start, he said, the armed group inside refused to come out and launched fierce resistance, which lasted for hours, "until they used up all their ammunition. Then, three of the men blew themselves up inside the house with explosives on their bodies, and that destroyed most of the building," he said.
When the battle ended, he said, U.S. and Iraqi troops dug through the remains of the house and pulled out eight bodies, one of which was a woman's. She had written a note pinned to her dress, saying in Arabic that she was istishhadia, a seeker of martyrdom, the police brigadier said.
Elsewhere in Iraq, U.S. officials said that a member of the 2nd Marine Division died yesterday of wounds he had suffered Saturday in the town of Karmah and a second Marine died in a roadside bomb explosion that also killed 15 civilians and sparked a battle that killed eight insurgents in Haditha.
The U.S. deaths brought to 2,094 the number of U.S. troops who have died in the conflict since March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
In Basra, in southern Iraq, a roadside bomb killed a British soldier and wounded four others. He was the 98th British service member to die in the Iraqi war.
John Daniszewski, in Baghdad, and Josh Meyer, in Washington, write for the Los Angeles Times. The Times' Roaa Ahmed in Mosul contributed to this article.