- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 7, 2004

BAGHDAD — A suicide attacker sped up to a U.S. military convoy outside Fallujah and detonated an explosives-packed vehicle yesterday, killing seven Marines and three Iraqi soldiers, U.S. military officials said. It was the deadliest day for American forces in four months.

The blast on a dusty stretch of wasteland nine miles north of Fallujah, a hotbed of Sunni insurgents, wrecked two Humvee vehicles, witnesses and military officials said. The force of the explosion hurled the engine of the attacker’s car far from the site.

The bombing underscored the challenges that U.S. commanders face in securing Fallujah and the surrounding Anbar province, the heartland of a Sunni Muslim insurgency bent on driving coalition forces from the country.

U.S. forces have not patrolled Fallujah since ending a three-week siege in April aimed at rooting out militiamen from the city. Insurgents have only strengthened their hold on Fallujah since then.

Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry said medical tests confirmed that Iraqi authorities once again had erred in reporting the capture of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein’s deputy, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, putting a stop to two days of conflicting statements about his purported arrest.

Ministry spokesman Sabah Kadhim said unspecified tests had shown that a man being held in Iraqi custody actually was a relative of al-Douri who had played only a minor role in Saddam’s regime but had been wanted by authorities.

The reports on al-Douri — the most wanted Saddam-era henchman still at large — come as an embarrassment to Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s government and reveal a lack of coordination among ministers competing for influence ahead of elections in January.

Including the deaths yesterday, 990 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003, according to a count by the Associated Press based on Defense Department figures.

Three soldiers were wounded yesterday in a roadside bombing in eastern Baghdad.

After the suicide blast outside Fallujah, west of the capital, Baghdad, medical teams in helicopters ferried the injured from the blazing wreckage and troops sealed off the area.

Fallujah hospital officials said four Iraqis were wounded by gunfire from U.S. troops near the blast site, but the U.S. military had no confirmation.

The military called the bombing “a desperate act of inhumanity” but insisted that U.S. troops will stay the course in Iraq until local forces are able to take over security operations. The slain Americans were from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

Hours after the attack, an unmanned U.S. spy plane crashed in Fallujah. Residents picked up pieces of debris and danced in the streets, displaying the bits to reporters, witnesses said.

Since the Marine siege ended, gunmen have been using the city as a base to manufacture car bombs and launch attacks on U.S. and Iraqi government forces. Fallujah has become a virtual no-go zone for U.S. troops, though American warplanes have carried out air strikes repeatedly against suspected militant safe houses there.

The attack yesterday resulted in the largest number of Americans killed in combat in a single day since May 2, when nine U.S. troops died in mortar attacks and roadside bombings in Baghdad, Ramadi and Kirkuk.

Seven troops were killed on two days last month, but in each case, there were six Americans and one foreign coalition member. On Aug. 21, six U.S. service members and one Polish soldier died in combat, and six Americans were killed Aug. 15, as was a Ukrainian soldier.

On Sunday, Iraqi Minister of State Qassim Dawoud as well as a Defense Ministry spokesman publicly proclaimed al-Douri’s capture. Later in the day, Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan said word of the arrest was “baseless.”

Mr. Kadhim, the Interior Ministry spokesman, neither identified the al-Douri relative in custody nor said when or where he was captured.

“This will make the government lose credibility after its ministers and top officials appeared to be either liars or foolish,” said Abdel Amir, an Iraqi political analyst and former editor of Baghdad, the mouthpiece of Mr. Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord party.

Mr. Amir said the conflicting statements reflected the rivalry among ministers from different ethnic, religious and political groups, each keen to showcase his achievements or embarrass foes.

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