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Insurgents clash with U.S. forces near Baqouba

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ Insurgents clashed Friday with U.S. forces northeast of Baghdad for the second time in as many days, and two of the militants were killed, U.S. military officials said.

A U.S. Army 1st Infantry patrol came under fire about 7:45 a.m. in the town of Buhriz, near Baqouba, 35 miles north of Baghdad, said Maj. Neal O'Brien.

U.S. helicopters hovered over buildings and cars gutted by fire. Masked gunmen held up rifles and rocket propelled grenades as they danced for the cameras. Women wailed in the streets.

In Baghdad, Iraq's defense minister promised a ``house-to-house'' search for suspects who planned Thursday's suicide car bombing near a recruitment center that killed at least 35 Iraqis hoping to join the military and wounded another 145. Another car bombing Thursday left another six people dead and four wounded in a town north of Baghdad.

Baqouba, a largely Sunni Muslim area that formed a core of support for Saddam Hussein's former regime, has been the scene of frequent clashes between coalition forces and insurgents. The area stretches to the north and west of Baghdad, and is part of the northern Diyala province.

On Thursday, another 1st Infantry patrol came under attack in the same area. There were no U.S. casualties resulting from either attack.

Military officials said seven insurgents had been killed in the two days of skirmishes, but officials at Baqouba General Hospital said five people had died and 15 were injured. Insurgents often don't bring wounded fighters to the hospital out of fear of arrest.

In the southern city of Nasiriyah, an explosion overnight wounded four Iraqi police, two seriously, an Italian commander said on condition of anonymity.

Defense Minister Hazem al-Shalan vowed tough action against those behind the car bombings.

``We will cut off the hands of those people, we will slit their throats if it is necessary to do so,'' he told reporters. ``For those people who want to join the new Iraqi army, we will protect them and we will find them a safe location so they can submit their applications.''

Asked if the new government would impose martial law if security continues to deteriorate, interim Interior Minister Falah Hassan al-Naqib said: ``If we need to do it, yes, we'll do it, we won't hesitate.''

Al-Shalan said a decision to impose martial law would be up to the prime minister.

The explosion near the recruitment center in Baghdad scattered bodies, blood and debris across a four-lane highway.

A white SUV packed with artillery shells exploded near a gate of a sprawling Iraqi security compound, close to the Muthanna airport on the western side of the Tigris River. It was the deadliest single blast since a car bombing at the same base in February.

Most of the victims were poor Iraqis desperate to take dangerous jobs in the Iraqi security forces because of few alternatives in a country with up to 45 percent unemployment. They took their chances at the recruitment center even after the February bombing there killed 47 people.

U.S. Col. Mike Murray said 175 recruits inside the walled compound also escaped injury but many of the victims had just gotten off a bus.

The other car bomb exploded in a village near Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad, killed six Iraqi Civil Defense Corps members and wounding four others, the U.S. military said. The defense corps is the main internal security force, created by U.S. administrators to battle insurgents.

That bombing came a day after a rocket slammed into a U.S. logistics base near Balad, killing three U.S. soldiers and wounding 25 other people, including two civilians.

The attacks came amid a surge of violence targeting American troops and their Iraqi allies ahead of the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30. The bombings were apparently designed to shake confidence in Iraqi security forces, seen by some in the region as beholden to the Americans.

In Seoul, the South Korean Defense Ministry said it will send 3,000 soldiers to northern Iraq beginning in early August. Once the deployment is complete, South Korea will be the largest coalition partner after the United States and Britain.

South Korea plans to send 900 troops to Kurdish-controlled Irbil in early August, followed by about 1,100 troops between late August and early September, Defense Ministry spokesman Nam Dai-yeon said. Another 1,000 soldiers will travel to Iraq later.

South Korea already has 600 military medics and engineers in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. They are expected to head to northern Iraq beginning in mid-July to prepare facilities ahead of the arrival of the main force, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported.

In Tokyo, the Cabinet approved a plan Friday for Japanese troops, now in Iraq on a humanitarian mission, to stay and join a multinational force after the interim government takes control.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, in Mosul for talks with the Iraqi leadership, promised that American troops would support the new government after the handover because ``Iraqi security forces are not ready to assume their job.''

More than 300 people have been killed in attacks on police stations and recruitment centers since September. In the most lethal attacks, five suicide bombings near police stations and a police academy in Basra killed at least 68 and wounded 200.

Iraq's interior minister, al-Naqib, linked Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to the Baghdad attack and accused foreigners of being behind the 20 car bombings that have shaken the country since the start of June. He offered no new evidence.

U.S. officials suggest that the accelerated pace indicates that al-Zarqawi's network has shifted from complex bombings to more frequent attacks against less-protected targets.
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