- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2004

BAGHDAD — Iraqi insurgents struck yesterday in the volatile Sunni Triangle west of Baghdad, killing five U.S. soldiers in two separate bombings and narrowly missing an American convoy with a blast that killed four Iraqis and wounded about 40 others north of the capital.

The bloody attacks occurred as U.N. security experts began to study the situation for the return of U.N. international staff to play a key role in Iraq’s transformation to democracy. The thud of distant explosions rumbled across the capital late yesterday, heightening the sense of insecurity that still prevails nine months after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

In Khaldiyah, some 70 miles west of Baghdad, three U.S. soldiers were killed and six more were wounded when a vehicle, believed to have been driven by a suicide bomber, exploded at a U.S. checkpoint near a bridge across the Euphrates River, the U.S. command said.

Iraqi witnesses said the four-wheel-drive vehicle drove up to the checkpoint and exploded in front of a U.S. Army Humvee trying to block it. At least eight Iraqis — six of them women — were injured, according to a doctor from the provincial hospital in nearby Ramadi.

Earlier yesterday, two other U.S. soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb that struck their four-vehicle convoy north of Fallujah, a Sunni Muslim city near Khaldiyah in a center of anti-American resistance.

The latest deaths brought to 512 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the war began March 20.

A third attack took place when a truck bomb exploded yesterday morning near government buildings in Samarra, about 70 miles north of Baghdad, barely missing a U.S. military police patrol as it turned into a police station compound.

The blast killed four Iraqi civilians and wounded about 40 people, including seven American soldiers who were cut by flying glass inside one of the buildings, Capt. Jennifer Knight of the 720th Military Police Battalion said. The Americans’ wounds were not life-threatening.

The explosion set fire to a half-dozen cars parked near the buildings, which included a police station and municipal offices, and gouged a large crater in the street.

In Baghdad, at least one sniper firing from a building wounded a U.S. soldier on patrol in the upscale Mansour neighborhood west of the Tigris River, Maj. Kevin West said.

A bridge across the Tigris leading to the coalition headquarters was closed by U.S. troops for two hours yesterday. Witnesses said the soldiers were searching for a bomb, but this could not be independently confirmed.

The incidents underscored the precarious security situation throughout much of Iraq as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan weighs a U.S. and Iraqi request to play an increased role in the political transformation of the country.

A two-member U.N. security team arrived Friday in Baghdad to study the return of international staffers. U.N. staff was withdrawn from Iraq in October after two attacks on the organization’s headquarters, including the devastating truck bombing in August that killed 22 persons, including top U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.

Mr. Annan also is considering sending a separate security team that would be needed if he decides to send experts to Iraq to determine whether early elections for a transitional government are feasible.

The United States and the Iraqi Governing Council have agreed to transfer power to Iraqis by July 1. Iraq’s leading Shi’ite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, has demanded direct elections for a new Iraqi legislature rather than a U.S. plan for selecting lawmakers in 18 regional caucuses. The ayatollah has agreed to accept any finding of a U.N. team.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said yesterday he expects the United Nations to accept a U.S. request to study prospects for elections and hopes recommendations can be ready quickly — within two to three weeks.

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