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U.S. sending troops to northern Iraq in bid to quell unrest

SAMARRA, Iraq—Facing continued attacks on U.S. soldiers and a growing number of confrontations between Americans and Iraqis, U.S. military officials on Thursday said they would begin sending more soldiers on patrols in areas where anti-American sentiment is rising.

The decision came as U.S. officials debate whether the U.S. military force in Iraq needs to be larger and to remain in Iraq longer than Pentagon officials had anticipated and whether the U.S. civil administration in Iraq should be overhauled for the second time in a month.

Both issues are to be discussed next week when President Bush visits Qatar, the headquarters of American military operations in the Persian Gulf, to meet with military commanders and with L. Paul Bremer, the top American civilian in Iraq, said a senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The most recent U.S. military death came on Thursday, when a soldier was shot and killed while riding in a convoy north of Baghdad.

On Wednesday night, two Iraqi children were killed when the truck they were riding in failed to stop at a checkpoint in Samarra, 100 miles north of Baghdad. Earlier this week, soldiers in Samarra fired on a wedding parade, killing four teenagers.

American officials thought southern Iraq's Shiite population might pose the greatest challenge for the military, but now the most pressing problem appears to be a wide swath of Iraq just north of Baghdad that's home to a large Sunni population that remains sympathetic to Saddam Hussein.

The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, said the war "has not ended" and described the attacks as combat activities organized by small but determined holdouts of Saddam's regime.

"We are not fighting a conventional army," he said. "Those who oppose the coalition are dressed in civilian clothing and are using terrorist techniques."

McKiernan said more patrols might be needed to deal with a cycle of violence, animosity and misunderstanding.

After a period of relative calm across much of the country, northern Iraq has erupted in a new wave of attacks that has left five soldiers dead and at least 23 wounded in less than a week.

In the small town of Hit, northwest of Baghdad, hundreds of demonstrators angered by aggressive American weapons searches in homes converged Wednesday on the police station where U.S. soldiers were meeting with local leaders.

While some protesters threw stones at the building, participants later said, one demonstrator lobbed a grenade into the compound, injuring two U.S. soldiers. Army officers said troops fired warning shots. Demonstrators said at least one soldier opened fire and injured three or four people.

When the army pulled out, demonstrators ravaged the building, which was left scarred and empty on Thursday.

In the same region northwest of Baghdad, at a checkpoint in Fallujah, two soldiers were killed and nine were wounded early Tuesday when they came under attack from all sides.

"I think somebody forgot to tell the Iraqis that the war's over," said Sgt. Gary Qualls of the Army's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, stationed at one of Saddam's northern palaces in the heart of the latest flare-ups.

The commander of the 4th Infantry Division, the unit involved in both incidents in Samarra, said Thursday that soldiers were defending against gunfire or threatening actions. Three hours after the wedding party shooting, at least five soldiers were seriously injured by a mortar attack on their compound in Samarra. Army officials imposed a curfew on the city after the attack, and they were investigating the killing of the wedding party teens.

Some people in the town said the latest killings of young people show it's time for American soldiers to leave.

"Bush said, `I am proud of this army.' Is he proud of that army that is thirsty for blood and killing children?" said Arkan al Nissani, a 25-year-old cousin of the children who died in the truck Wednesday night.

Rokan Habib, 42, said he saw a light shining in his face but wasn't expecting a checkpoint. Before he could stop, he said, gunshots rang out and killed his son, Gazal, 9, and his daughter, Nora, 12, and wounded him and another daughter.

Officers with 1st Battalion, 66th Armor, from Fort Hood, Texas, said the truck blew through the checkpoint, narrowly missing two soldiers. Troops shot only after firing warning shots and aiming at the truck tires, officers said.

"You're not seeing bullies. You're seeing guys that protect themselves and their country," said Lt. Col. Ryan Gonsalves.

In Baghdad, there were also incidents that stoked tensions. At a weapons checkpoint near the al Jamhuria (Republican) Bridge, U.S. soldiers forced three men out of their cars and to the ground after discovering an AK-47 rifle and a 9 mm pistol in the vehicle.

"I have lost all my rights. It's a humiliation," shouted one of the three handcuffed men, Ali Bennawi Ali, 40. The other two were his cousins, Ali Fadhil Ali, 38, and Naser Hassun Ali, 30. Each of the men said they needed the weapons for self-defense in their jobs as handlers for an international food organization.

The soldiers said no one was allowed to have a gun unless they had proper permits and that the men were forced to the ground because they resisted being handcuffed.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Maureen Fan in Baghdad, Iraq, contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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