Wednesday, December 24, 2003

BAGHDAD — A roadside bomb exploded north of Baghdad yesterday, killing three U.S. soldiers in the deadliest attack on Americans since Saddam Hussein’s capture. Hours later, guerrillas fired a mortar shell that hit an upper floor of a Baghdad hotel filled with Western contractors and journalists.

No one was injured in the strike on the Ishtar Sheraton Hotel because the 60 mm direct-lay mortar shell hit a barrier, or outer wall, on the heavily barricaded 19-story hotel, which rises from the east bank of the Tigris River, said Capt. Jason Beck of the U.S. Army’s 1st Armored Division.

Capt. Beck said Iraqi security guarding the hotel immediately fired at the guerrillas, who fled. Early today, distant explosions were heard in central Baghdad as the U.S. military bombarded suspected rebel positions.

The hotel attack, which rattled windows for blocks, followed a string of separate bombings that killed six civilians and a suicide bomber in addition to the three American soldiers.

Until yesterday, U.S. military commanders had said the number of daily rebel attacks was slowing in recent weeks — even as they braced for a rebel offensive during the Christmas holiday season.

The day’s fighting began before dawn, when the 1st Armored Division unleashed an artillery barrage on three rebel targets in southwest Baghdad, aided by Air Force fighter jets and gunships.

Elsewhere, U.S. troops continued their stepped-up raids on homes in several towns that led to the arrest of a Sunni sheik said to be close to the most-wanted man in Iraq. Troops rounded up dozens of guerrilla suspects in strongholds of U.S. resistance, saying they were capitalizing on intelligence from interrogations and documents seized in the Dec. 13 capture of Saddam, the former dictator.

At 9 a.m. yesterday, three U.S. soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb that hit a military convoy near Samarra, a town north of Baghdad where insurgents often have launched attacks.

In northern Iraq, a suicide bomber detonated an explosives-packed car in front of the Kurdish Interior Ministry in the city of Irbil, near Kirkuk, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said in Baghdad.

Four civilians — two guards, a 13-year-old girl and a passing taxi driver — were killed along with the bomber and 101 persons were injured, Interior Minister Karim Sinjar said.

Also yesterday, two persons were killed and two injured — all minibus passengers — when a roadside bomb detonated in a Baghdad traffic tunnel, hospital officials said.

Gen. Kimmitt said the overnight U.S. bombardment, which residents heard until about 2 a.m., was the launch of Operation Iron Grip, targeting an area that had been used to fire mortars at U.S. troops.

He also indicated that the operation was a show of force in the military’s latest offensive against Baghdad’s guerrillas.

In Washington, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday that information resulting from Saddam’s capture led to the arrests of 50 former regime leaders a day earlier.

One of the latest targets was Ghazi Hanash, leader of al-Ta’ee tribe based near the northern city of Mosul. He is said to be close to former Vice President Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, who U.S. commanders suspect is an organizer of the anti-American resistance.

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