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U.N. staffer, U.S. troops latest slain in Iraq firefight

BAGHDAD—Two U.S. soldiers with the 101st Airborne Division were killed in Iraq Sunday when gunmen ambushed their convoy with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades west of the northern city of Mosul, military officials said.

In southern Iraq, a driver employed by the United Nations was killed and a foreign staffer injured when they slammed into a bus after gunmen opened fire on their vehicle, a U.N. spokesman said. They were en route to Al Hillal, about 60 miles south of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

Fatal assaults on U.S. troops have become a daily occurrence in Iraq, but the attack on the two-vehicle U.N. convoy was the first since U.N. staffers returned to Iraq in early June, said Ahmed Fawzi, a U.N. spokesman

The latest attacks came on the eve of a visit to New York by Sergio Viera de Mello, the U.N.'s special representative for Iraq. He is expected to urge the U.N. Security Council to recognize Iraq's new Governing Council.

U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer named the 25-member council, which serves as Iraq's interim government.

Bremer, making the rounds Sunday of morning news shows in Washington, said that while he believes Saddam Hussein is still alive and in Iraq, he does not think the deposed Iraqi leader is coordinating the daily attacks on Americans. But Bremer added that killing or capturing Saddam would help defuse the violence.

"What we're seeing is highly professional, a very small set of sort of squad level attacks, five or six people at a time attacking us," Bremer said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Of Saddam, Bremer added, "The sooner we can either kill him or capture him, the better, because the fact that his fate is unknown certainly gives his supporters the chance to go around and try to rally support for him."

While security remains a problem, Bremer said, the attacks have mainly been confined to a small area known as the Sunni Triangle. It stretches north and west of Baghdad and includes Saddam's hometown of Tikrit.

"Most of the country is quiet," he said.

"We have a limited problem of some bitter-enders, some small remnants of the old regime who are using professional military tactics to attack and kill our soldiers as they did this morning."

The new attacks Sunday brought the number of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq to 151. In a non-hostile incident Sunday, one soldier was killed and two injured when their vehicle overturned on a highway near Baghdad International Airport.

The ambush of 101st Airborne troops in the town of Tal Afar, about 40 miles west of the northern city of Mosul, occurred in a predominately Kurdish area. Most other assaults have occurred in predominantly Sunni areas north and west of the capital.

A senior U.S. Army official, who asked not to be named, said U.S. troops have come under fire in the Mosul area before and downplayed suggestions that resistance against the U.S.-led coalition was spreading.

"The pattern that we can confirm is that if we are having successes, they tend to target those successes," he said. U.S. troops recently opened a community center in Mosul and on Saturday opened a recruitment center there for trainees for a new Iraqi army.

Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the U.S. ground commander in Iraq, suggested to reporters Saturday that some attacks may be the work of foreign terrorists who have slipped across Iraq's porous borders.

Fawzi said the report de Mello plans to deliver to the U.N. Security Council will not contain a recommendation that the United Nations authorize a peacekeeping force to assist the U.S.-led coalition in establishing order and security in Iraq.

"The security and welfare of the citizens of Iraq is the responsibility of the occupying power," Fawzi said. "It is not our mandate to look at security at the moment."

Rather, the report will identify areas where the United Nations can become more involved in the reconstruction of Iraq, including providing guidance on writing the country's new constitution, reforming its judicial and educational systems, helping train police and assisting in organizing free elections.


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Shannon McCaffrey contributed to this story from Washington.)


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