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Violence escalates in Iraq; tape claiming to be Saddam urges attacks

BALAD, Iraq—The Fourth of July holiday for coalition forces here was marred by a series of violent attacks that began late Thursday, including the fatal shooting of a U.S. soldier guarding the Iraqi National Museum, a highway bomb in the western part of the Iraqi capital that wounded one soldier and the driver of a civilian car, and a mortar attack north of Baghdad that injured 18 soldiers.

Hours after the mortars fell in Balad, about 55 miles north of Baghdad, anti-coalition forces in the same area attempted to strike again, firing guns and rocket-propelled grenades at a patrol traveling on Highway 1. The 11 attackers were killed. No soldiers were injured, Central Command reported.

Separately, al Jazeera, the satellite Arab television station, on Friday evening broadcast an audio tape by a man claiming to be Saddam Hussein and calling on Iraqis to continue attacks against coalition forces.

"Hardly a day or a week passes without the blood of the infidels being let on our chaste land thanks to the jihad of mujahideen," the tape said.

"Therefore, I call on you to provide cover for the heroic mujahideen and not to give the infidel invaders and their collaborators any information about them and their activities during, before, or after their execution of jihadist operations."

The tape, purportedly recorded on June 14, was aired a day after L. Paul Bremer, the top civilian administrator in Iraq, announced a $25 million reward for Saddam and $15 million each for information leading to the capture of his two sons Odai and Qusai.

There is no immediate way to verify the recording's authenticity. But Iraqis who listened to the audiotape on al Jazeera said they are positive it is the voice of Saddam.

"The voice is real. In my heart I know it is real. We know Saddam Hussein for 35 years—he was on the TV all the time," said Omar Ali, the owner of a satellite television shop in Monsour, the Baghdad neighborhood where Saddam was last thought to be seen. "It is proof that he is alive."

Ali said he hopes Saddam comes back to power and laughed at the $25 million reward. "If you gave me the moon in one hand and the sun in the other, I would never give the Americans information about my president," Ali said.

Balad, site of the latest attacks, has become a hot spot for U.S. soldiers. Late last month, two soldiers who were kidnapped from the area were later found dead. In early June, U.S. soldiers killed seven people, five of them civilians, after assailants fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a tank convoy.

In Balad, many residents greeted news of the injured soldiers with pleasure.

"Americans deserve that and they deserve more than that," said Balad resident Salan Hamed of the mortar attack. "They're hurting the people of Iraq."

Standing next to Hamed, Fathel Abbas said the coalition was wasting time by offering a $25 million reward for Saddam's capture.

"If they put money all over the street, $100 million, we will not give up Saddam Hussein. If they give us $1 billion, we will not give up Saddam Hussein," Abbas said.

Asked if anyone in the crowd knew people who were plotting against Americans, Abbas and two other men quickly said, "I am!"

Major Edward Bryja, a spokesman for the Balad-based 3rd Corps Support Command, said the "entire area should be considered very dangerous."

"We can't let ourselves get complacent. We have to be on guard at all times," Bryja said.

The mortar attack, the first on the base located far from main roads and surrounded by sunflower fields, occurred around 10:30 p.m.

Nine of the 18 injured soldiers were quickly returned to duty, Bryja said. One of the more seriously injured has been airlifted out of the country. On Friday morning, soldiers added extra layers of concertina wire around the base's perimeter.

As the soldiers in Balad unwound the large coils of barbed wire, attackers in the Iraqi capital detonated an explosive on a highway, injuring an Iraqi driver of a civilian car and one female soldier traveling in a Humvee convoy.

"It's the same thing that we've been seeing all along," said Capt. Chris Hockenberry, 32, of the 82nd Airborne Division. "They take an artillery shell, remove the fuse, pack it with C4 explosives, put a blasting cap inside, and then wire it to a remote control device.

Friday's attack occurred at around 8:30 a.m. The injuries could have been much worse, but Hockenberry said that the device exploded before the first Humvee, which was about 50 feet away, arrived. He said that the attackers are likely watching the road from a nearby vantage point and waiting for the opportunity to strike.

"They hide in bushes, parked cars, abandoned houses," Hockenberry said. "It's probably Saddam Fedayeen, and the Baathists are paying them."

Iraqis continue to suffer from prolonged power outages, lack of water, soaring unemployment and a sense of unease as security continues to be a major challenge. Hockenberry said he hears constant complaints about the lack of electricity. But he doesn't think that more troops need to be sent from the United States.

"I don't know if more soldiers would help," said Hockenberry. "We really need the NGOs (non-government organizations) and more money to get the infrastructure fixed. Otherwise, more people who are neutral are going to become our enemies."

Hockenberry said an Iraqi national working with his unit as a translator has been threatened by other Iraqis.

"He's been told `You're a traitor, you're going to be killed,'" Hockenberry said.

On Thursday night, a 1st Armored Division soldier was shot and killed while sitting in the gunner's hatch of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle while protecting the Iraqi National Museum at about 8:30 p.m., according to a statement by Central Command.

Earlier in the day, the national museum displayed several artifacts, including priceless gold

jewelry from the Treasures of Nimrud.

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(Pompilio reports for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Hull report for the San Jose Mercury News.)

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):

Iraq

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