Attack kills 19 Iraqi soldiers

Convoy hit by roadside bomb, gunfire

5 civilians among wounded


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Nineteen Iraqi army soldiers were killed and four wounded yesterday when insurgents exploded a roadside bomb to cripple an army convoy northeast of Baghdad and then opened fire on the patrol, police said.

The carefully coordinated attack near the town of Adhaim triggered a 30-minute firefight that killed two other people, possibly insurgents, and left five civilians wounded.

It was the second major strike in three days against U.S. and Iraqi forces that defend the Shiite Muslim-led government against a predominantly Sunni Arab guerrilla uprising. A powerful bomb fashioned from several artillery shells killed 10 Marines near Fallujah on Thursday in the deadliest attack against U.S. forces in nearly four months.

The Islamic Army of Iraq, a militant group believed to be linked to deposed President Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, posted a video yesterday showing what it called an explosion hitting a U.S. patrol in the Fallujah area. It did not directly link the footage to Thursday's attack, which police said occurred on a road west of the city.

In the video, a Humvee flanked by what look like U.S. troops on foot travels slowly along a street. An explosion engulfs the vehicle, sending clouds of dust into the air and bystanders fleeing.

The video's authenticity could not be verified. It was shown on Al-Jazeera television and later posted on a Web site used by insurgent groups to claim attacks.

Yesterday's ambush targeted the Iraqi army, which the U.S. military is expanding and training to take on the insurgents. President Bush last week acknowledged the Iraqi army's "uneven" performance but said its troops eventually would be ready to shoulder the burden of maintaining the nation's security.

During the morning attack yesterday, all five of the Iraqi convoy's vehicles went up in flames. The soldiers leapt out into the road where "there was very heavy shooting at us from all directions, and nowhere to hide," said Ismail Fatah, a soldier in the Salam Battalion.

"We shot back indiscriminately," he added. "We may have caused some casualties among the civilians standing nearby."

The insurgents faded away as army and police reinforcements arrived from nearby Baqubah, the capital of Diyala province, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.

Baqubah, a tense city with a mixed population of Shiites and Sunnis, lies on a fault line of the sectarian conflict. It has experienced a surge in guerrilla activity over the past three weeks, prompting the army to bring in fresh troops. The battalion that was attacked yesterday was made up of soldiers from Shiite cities in southern Iraq.

The attack was one of the deadliest on Iraqi soldiers since a June 15 suicide bombing at a mess hall north of Baghdad that resulted in the deaths of at least 23 soldiers.

Earlier in the day, rocket or mortar fire struck a U.S. base at the airport in Mosul, wounding two American soldiers, the U.S. military said. The city is about 225 miles northwest of Baghdad.

Meanwhile, The revered Shiite religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani weighed into Iraq's election campaign yesterday with an instruction to his followers on how to vote that amounted to an endorsement of the ruling pro-Iranian Shiite coalition.

In what his aides described as an oral statement issued through his Office of Fatwa, or religious instruction, in the holy city of Najaf, al-Sistani said Shiites are obligated to vote in the Dec. 15 election. He also specified that they should favor lists of candidates who are religiously inclined and that they should not vote for "weak" ones.

The only group that fits that description is the United Iraqi Alliance, the heavyweight Shiite coalition of major religious parties that won the most votes in the last election and now dominates the government.

As the spiritual leader of most of the country's 16 million Shiites, al-Sistani's word is law as far as many devout Shiites are concerned, and his endorsement of the United Iraqi Alliance during January's election was considered crucial to the group's strong showing.

The alliance includes the two most powerful Shiite parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which was formed in exile in Iran during Saddam Hussein's rule, and the Dawa Party of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. It also contains representatives of the one-time rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, as well as a number of smaller Shiite religious factions.

Richard Boudreaux reports for the Los Angeles Times. The Chicago Tribune contributed to this article.

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