U.S. forces attack suspected militants in Fallujah; two American soldiers killed in Samarra

Monday, July 19th 2004, 6:09 am
By: News On 6

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ U.S. forces launched a ``precision attack'' Friday against a suspected gathering of insurgents outside a house in the volatile city of Fallujah, wounding five civilians, while a roadside bomb killed two American soldiers near Samarra, the U.S. military said.

Also Friday, firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who led an uprising against U.S. forces, condemned militants who have beheaded foreigners in recent months _ two days after a decapitated body was found on the banks of the Tigris, accompanied by a severed head in a bag.

The military also said a van carrying Iraqi civilians collided with a U.S. tank Thursday night near Baghdad, killing nine people and injuring 10 _ all civilians. Iraqis said 18 people were injured and all the dead, including one child, were from the same family, which was returning to Baghdad from a wedding party in Tarmiyah, 30 miles to the north.

A roadside bomb Friday wounded a bus driver and eight passengers _ including a pregnant woman and two children _ in Baghdad's northern suburb of Toubechi, police Lt. Rajab Saleh said. The bus driver ignored police warnings not to enter the area, he said.

Gunmen also assassinated retired Iraqi Maj. Gen. Salim Majeed Blesh, who had worked for the former U.S. occupation government, police Capt. Ahmed Subhi said. Blesh, 59, was slain with his neighbor as they headed to a mosque in the northern city of Mosul.

Three children were among the five civilians wounded in Fallujah attack, said Dr. Kamal Al-Ani, a hospital official. Witnesses denied the house was harboring militants.

The attack, like several other recent strikes in Fallujah, was conducted in coordination with the Iraqi government, and it targeted 10-12 terrorists linked to Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the military said.

Al-Zarqawi has claimed responsibility for a series of car bombings and beheadings of foreigners in Iraq in recent months.

``The anti-Iraqi forces were struck while in the courtyard of a house; the house was left intact,'' the statement said.

Al-Ani said a U.S. warplane fired a missile that landed in the garden of a house in the Jubail neighborhood in southern Fallujah. Associated Press Television News video showed a huge crater beside the house.

``We were sleeping in the morning when a U.S. missile hit our house,'' Saddam Jassim said as he and his brother cleared debris. ``We have nothing to do with the resistance or al-Zarqawi. These are pretexts used by the U.S. military to terrorize the people in Fallujah because U.S. soldiers are unable to face the insurgents.''

Marines pulled back from Fallujah _ a focal point of resistance _ after besieging it for three weeks in April. Since then, the military has used missile attacks and airstrikes against potential targets, and Friday's strike was the seventh in about a month.

The roadside bombing south of Samarra that killed the two Americans also wounded one soldier, a military official said on condition of anonymity. The city 60 miles north of Baghdad was the scene of battles this week that killed four Iraqis and wounded five.

The American deaths raised the U.S. toll in Iraq since the beginning of the war to 902, according to an Associated Press count. Iraq has been wracked by a 15-month-long insurgency that has used car bombings, sabotage, kidnappings and other violence to try to drive out coalition forces and hamper reconstruction efforts.

Leading prayers at the Kufa mosque south of Baghdad for the first time in two months, al-Sadr criticized the insurgents who have beheaded at least three foreigners since April. The killings of citizens from the United States, South Korea and Bulgaria were mostly claimed by Sunni Muslims _ rivals of al-Sadr's Shiite faction.

``We condemn what some people are doing regarding the beheading of prisoners and it is illegal according to Islamic law,'' al-Sadr said. ``Anybody doing this is a criminal and we will punish him according to Islamic law.''

Al-Sadr led a roughly two-month uprising against U.S. forces in Shiite-dominated areas across Iraq beginning in April. On-and-off battles between U.S. troops and al-Sadr's al-Mahdi militia left hundreds of people dead before a cease-fire was reached in June.

On Thursday, Beiji police official Taha Abdullah said police found a decapitated body in an orange jumpsuit and a head in a bag on the banks of the Tigris River the day before, raising fears that a second Bulgarian hostage had been killed.

U.S. military spokesman Maj. Neal O'Brien confirmed the discovery, saying police had discovered the decapitated body and that its ``head had been placed in a backpack-type bag and tied off to the back of the body.'' Police took the body to a Tikrit hospital, he added.

Bulgarian officials were investigating whether the remains were those of Ivaylo Kepov, 32, one of two Bulgarians kidnapped June 29 near the northern city of Mosul. The Bulgarian Foreign Ministry said another headless body found in the Tigris on July 14 was the other hostage, Bulgarian truck driver Georgi Lazov, 30.

A group affiliated with al-Zarqawi said it kidnapped the Bulgarians and demanded Iraqi detainees be released. The group later sent a tape to Al-Jazeera television that reportedly showed Lazov being killed.

On Wednesday, militants said they had taken seven more foreigners hostage this week _ three Kenyans, three Indians and an Egyptian _ all truck drivers for the Kuwait & Gulf Link Transport Co. The group, calling itself ``The Holders of the Black Banners,'' said it would behead a captive every 72 hours beginning Saturday night if the company did not agree to stop doing business here and the countries did not withdraw troops and citizens. India, Kenya and Egypt have no troops in Iraq.

KGL said it would take ``all necessary measures'' to save the lives of the hostages, but it stopped short of saying it would cease operating in Iraq.

Kenya urged its citizens to get out of Iraq. On Friday, Kenyan government spokesman Alfred Mutua said it has appealed to KGL to leave immediately to meet the demands of the captors.

``We don't have troops in Iraq, we don't have companies there, so all we can do is urge the company to leave the country,'' Mutua told the AP. ``The life of any Kenyan is worth a lot to us.''

The owner of the company ``has assured us that he is cooperating, and he would like to get his employees freed,'' Mutua said. ``If they are going to pull out, that would increase the chances of them being released. No amount of money in business is worth the life of a single person.''

Many of the nearly 70 people taken hostage in Iraq in recent months were truck drivers, easy kidnap targets who haul cargo for private companies _ work vital to normalizing Iraq's postwar economy.

The kidnappings have further complicated Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's efforts to persuade reluctant nations to join the coalition and send troops.

In his sermon, al-Sadr also condemned Allawi, who had ordered the cleric's weekly newspaper reopened since it was shut down March 28.

``Damn you and damn the occupiers,'' al-Sadr said.