- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 3, 2007

BAGHDAD — The U.S. military said yesterday that 14 U.S. soldiers were killed over the past three days, including four in a single roadside bombing and another who was struck by a suicide bomber while on a foot patrol.

Meanwhile, Mahdi Army militiamen loyal to militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr battled with Iraqi troops and local police searching for two militia leaders in the southern city of Diwaniyah as U.S. jets roared overhead.

At least three persons were killed and 24 wounded in that battle, Iraqi officials said.

The clashes erupted Saturday evening after Iraqi soldiers and police cordoned off a market in search of two senior Mahdi Army figures wanted by U.S.-led coalition forces in connection with sectarian killings.

Maj. Gen. Othman Ali, commander of the Iraq army’s 8th Division, said his forces captured one of the men, but he escaped when fellow militiamen came to his aid.

The fighting on the eastern side of the city, 80 miles south of Baghdad, resumed at about 9 a.m. Sunday with the support of U.S. jet fighters and helicopter gunships skimming over Diwaniyah’s rooftops, police said.

Maj. Ali said his forces raided two locations in “fierce” fighting that lasted three hours. They didn’t find their target suspects but did find weapons caches at the site, he said.

U.S. helicopter gunships also attacked targets in Mahdi Army-dominated eastern Baghdad late Saturday, killing four suspected militants and destroying 10 rockets, the U.S. military reported.

The blast that killed the four U.S. soldiers occurred yesterday as the troops were conducting a cordon-and-search operation northwest of Baghdad, the military said. Two other soldiers were killed, and five were wounded along with an Iraqi interpreter in two roadside bombings yesterday, the military said.

In the boldest attack, a U.S. soldier was killed Friday after the patrol approached two suspicious men for questioning near a mosque southwest of Baghdad, and one of the suspects blew himself up. Military spokesman Maj. Webster Wright said U.S. troops also fired at the second suspect after he began acting aggressively, and the gunfire detonated his suicide vest.

“Our initial analysis is that these guys were al Qaeda and were planning to launch attacks into Baghdad,” Maj. Wright said by e-mail.

Seven other soldiers were killed in a series of attacks across Iraq on Saturday.

A car bomb also exploded outside a U.S. base near the volatile city of Baqouba, leaving troops gasping for air and suffering from eye irritations, the military said. It did not confirm a report in the Los Angeles Times that the car was carrying chlorine canisters but said the troops who were sickened had been treated and returned to duty.

The attacks came days after the Pentagon announced the completion of the troop buildup ordered by President Bush in January, raising the number of troops in Iraq to about 150,000. That number may still climb as more support troops move in.

The Bush administration has warned that the buildup will result in more U.S. casualties as more U.S. troops come into contact with enemy forces and concentrate on the streets of Baghdad and remote outposts.

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