- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 28, 2004

BAGHDAD — U.S. jets pounded suspected militant positions in a Baghdad slum yesterday, while two car bombs killed seven Iraqi national guardsmen and a rocket barrage hit a police academy.

Two U.S. soldiers with the 1st Infantry Division were killed near Balad, north of the capital. The first died in a car crash and the second was killed when a patrol came under fire as it was returning from the crash site, the military said.

More than 1,040 U.S. military members have died since the start of U.S.-led operations in Iraq in March last year.

The U.S. air strikes were conducted before dawn in the Sadr City neighborhood, where residents said explosions lit up the night sky for hours, leaving a trail of mangled vehicles, damaged buildings and shards of glass.

At least two children wrapped in bloodstained bandages were seen lying in hospital beds after the strikes, and one man had suffered burns from head to toe.

Dr. Qassem Saddam of the Imam Ali hospital said the strikes killed at least five persons and wounded 46, including 15 women and nine children. The U.S. military said the casualty figures were “suspect.”

“Early indications are that injuries to a large group of people as a result of this engagement did not occur,” the military said, adding that it was opening an internal investigation to determine what had happened.

Lt. Col. Jim Hutton, an Army spokesman, said insurgents also fired three mortar rounds at a nearby Army base, but the shells fell short and exploded in a civilian neighborhood. It was not clear whether any of the casualties in Sadr City were from the insurgents’ shells.

U.S. warplanes struck again late yesterday, residents said. Explosions echoed through the neighborhood, but there was no word on casualties.

The military has cracked down on Shi’ite fighters loyal to Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr in the sprawling slum — named after the renegade cleric’s late father — to dismantle his militia before elections slated for January.

The elections are central to a U.S. exit strategy, as is the development of a strong Iraqi national guard. The United States is trying to build a security force capable of taking over operations in many towns and cities, thus allowing the Pentagon to reduce U.S. troop strength.

The first car bomb yesterday struck a seven-vehicle national guard patrol in the northeastern city of Mosul, killing at least four guardsmen and wounding three, police said. Gunmen followed up the blast with a burst of automatic weapons fire before fleeing.

A suicide attacker later detonated an explosives-packed vehicle at a national guard checkpoint near the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, killing at least three guardsmen and wounding several people, police said.

U.S. warplanes were spotted over Fallujah later in the day. Residents said the planes fired at least three rockets at northern parts of the city, but U.S. Marine officers said only illumination rounds were fired. There were no reports of casualties.

In east Baghdad, insurgents also fired several mortar rounds that hit a police academy on Palestine Street, said Interior Ministry spokesman Col. Najah Shakre. There were no reports of injuries.

With civil servants and security personnel dying every day in attacks, Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s Cabinet announced the adoption of a draft resolution to compensate families of those “killed by terrorist acts” — an apparent effort to encourage government employees to keep working.

If ratified by the national assembly, families of victims will receive a monthly income equal to the last salary of the dead person, the Cabinet said. It was not clear how long the payments would continue.

Also yesterday, the Iranian Embassy announced that Fereidoun Jahani, the Iranian consul in Karbala, had been freed after 57 days in captivity. The diplomat was seized while traveling between Baghdad and Karbala, said Abbas Attar, director of the Iranian ambassador’s office in Baghdad.

In a video made public Aug. 7, militants calling themselves the “Islamic Army in Iraq” accused Iran of meddling in Iraq’s affairs.

Iran, a predominantly Shi’ite Muslim country with close ties to Iraq’s majority Shi’ite population, is suspected of using money to influence Iraqi politics.

Mr. Jahani’s release came as the brother of a British hostage abducted Sept. 16 with two Americans called on Prime Minister Tony Blair to resign over his policies in Iraq. The two Americans have been beheaded by fighters suspected of being followers of terror mastermind Abu Musab Zarqawi.

The three hostages were among more than 140 foreigners who have been kidnapped in Iraq — some by anti-U.S. insurgents and others by criminals seeking ransom. At least 26 have been killed.

The U.S. military, meanwhile, announced a second set of murder charges in as many weeks against members of the same Army battalion deployed in Baghdad.

The statement identified the latest two U.S. soldiers to be charged as Staff Sgts. Johnny Horne Jr. and Cardenas Alban, both from Company C, 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment from Fort Riley, Kan.

The military declined to provide details, saying an investigation is ongoing.

Last week, the military filed charges against two other soldiers from the same unit in the death of three Iraqis. The 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry is involved in efforts to bring stability to Baghdad.

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