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U.S. soldier killed while guarding Baghdad bank, 4 others wounded by bomb

BAGHDAD, Iraq—One U.S. soldier was fatally shot Saturday while guarding a Baghdad bank and four more U.S. troops were wounded when their convoy was hit by a remote-controlled bomb.

Meanwhile, in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, thousands of Shiite protestors took to the streets for the second day in a row, demanding that Iraq's new governing council include representatives chosen in free elections. The 25-member council, which was announced last Sunday, was handpicked by former Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. administrator for Iraq. The protests followed an announcement Friday by a prominent Shiite cleric that he would not support the council, and he called for the formation of a national Islamic army.

The fresh wave of attacks came as Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the U.S. ground commander in Iraq, offered an upbeat assessment of the situation.

Progress was "way ahead of schedule," he said, compared to what Pentagon planners had expected.

He added that senior U.S. military officials had always expected American troops to be embroiled in combat in Iraq for several months after major operations were over.

Saturday's shooting brought to five the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq last week and to 149 the number of U.S. personnel killed in combat since the war began March 20. More than 35 have been killed in combat since President Bush declared major combat operations over on May 1.

Sanchez described the enemy as "former regime leaders, Saddam Fedayeen (paramilitaries), terrorists and criminals," and said U.S. troops would hunt down and capture or kill them.

"We're winning this war," Sanchez assured reporters, saying the final test would be "whether Saddam Hussein comes back to power. That will never happen. Everybody has got to believe that. The international coalition will ensure that never happens."

Sanchez acknowledged that al-Qaida and other terrorists probably have slipped across Iraq's porous borders and are plotting attacks against U.S. troops. In an audiotape sent to Arabic television networks last week, a group claiming to be associated with al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden took responsibility for attacks against U.S. soldiers in Fallujah and Ramadi, both hotbeds of anti-U.S. sentiment west of Baghdad.

Sanchez suggested that intense media scrutiny of lingering problems such as spotty electricity and insufficient supplies of running water misses the bigger picture of overall progress in Iraq.

"Look, I spent a year in Kosovo in the aftermath of war," he said, referring to the Balkan country in which American troops began serving as peacekeepers in 1999.

"We were nowhere near the level of progress that's been made in this country in the last 100 days.

"Even if we had no electricity," Sanchez continued, "even if our schools weren't running, and all we had was just basics for living, who can argue that this country has not made progress? You've eliminated a cruel dictatorial regime. I am very confident in the future of Iraq."

When asked by an Iraqi journalist how long attacks would continue in the capital, Sanchez replied: "Until you can help us."

Coalition provisional authority officials announced Saturday that recruiting centers for a new Iraqi army had opened in the capital, and in Mosul and Basra.

Vinnell Corp., based in Reston, Va., will train recruits for two months. Former Iraqi soldiers over the rank of lieutenant colonel are barred from joining the new army, which will begin with 1,060 men, including 60 officers.

U.S. officials in Baghdad hope to field the first battalion in two months. Sanchez said once the new soldiers are trained they will accompany U.S. soldiers on patrols and other operations. U.S. officials hope their presence will reduce attacks on U.S. troops. Currently, they face about a dozen a day.

U.S. forces wrapped up their latest sweep operation, dubbed Soda Mountain, on Thursday. In 141 raids, U.S. troops detained more than 600 people, including 64 "high-value targets," mainly former regime and military figures believed to be planning or carrying out attacks on U.S. troops.


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