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3 U.S. soldiers killed in ambush on outskirts of Tikrit

KHALDIYAH, Iraq—After a period of relative calm, Iraqi guerrillas attacked U.S. troops in at least three locations on Thursday, killing three and wounding at least four more.

The three dead and two of the wounded were 4th Infantry Division troops who were ambushed near al Ouja on the outskirts of Tikrit, the hometown of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Their names were withheld pending notification of next of kin, and few details were available early Friday in Iraq.

Earlier in the day, Iraqi guerrillas ambushed a U.S. convoy west of Baghdad with remote-controlled bombs and rocket-propelled grenades in what appeared to be an unusually sophisticated and coordinated one-two punch.

One eyewitness claimed to have seen at least seven U.S. soldiers dead or wounded. U.S. military officials said only two were wounded and that there were no deaths.

The ambush followed the assassination Monday of Khaldiyah's police chief, who was widely believed to have been killed for collaborating with U.S. troops.

Near dusk, several hours after Thursday's ambush, an ecstatic crowd of about 300 Iraqi men and teenage boys surged onto the highway at Khaldiyah, declaring their support for Saddam and vowing to continue attacking U.S. troops.

As tires and other wreckage from a destroyed American 5-ton truck smoldered nearby, the men held aloft gold-framed portraits of the former dictator and chanted, "With our lives and with our blood, we will sacrifice for you, Saddam Hussein."

Many brandished weapons. One teenager waved a semi-automatic pistol over his head. Another made slashing motions with a bayonet. Several young boys carried blasted truck parts like trophies.

"As long as American forces stay in this country, we will fight them," said Saud Mohammed, 50. "We will kick the Americans out, just as we did to the Persians, the Turks and the British before."

Khaldiyah lies about halfway between Fallujah, 25 miles west of Baghdad, and the western town of Ramadi, about 60 miles from the capital. The region was largely untouched by the war that ousted Saddam in April, and residents' initial reaction to U.S. troops was not hostile. Resistance has grown steadily, however, since 82nd Airborne Division troopers in Fallujah fired on a crowd of violent demonstrators in June, killing more than a dozen. Conservative Sunni clerics now regularly sermonize against the American-led occupation.

Eyewitnesses in Khaldiyah said Thursday's attack started when militants in Fallujah set off a remote-controlled roadside bomb as a U.S. military convoy passed. The bomb apparently caused little damage and few, if any, initial casualties. As the three-vehicle convoy reached Khaldiyah's western outskirts, guerrillas set off a second bomb that sent a 5-ton military truck up in flames.

One vehicle crawled several hundred yards down the road, apparently to extract wounded soldiers, said Khardoun Jumal, 38, who said he witnessed the attack. A tank responding to the incident came under attack with a rocket-propelled grenade but was undamaged. An unknown number of gunmen then opened fire on the convoy from nearby houses, and a raging gunbattle ensued, Jumal said.

"The Americans started firing all over the place," Jumal said. "They shot into some houses, and some people were wounded, but I don't think anyone was killed."

About an hour after the first incident, three American vehicles, including a Humvee and another 5-ton truck began moving west along the road to Ramadi, local residents said. About five miles west from the scene of the first attack, Iraqi guerrillas struck again with another remote-controlled bomb and more rocket-propelled grenades. A truck and a Humvee were hit and damaged.

"The truck was moving slowly because it had been damaged in the first attack, " said Hashim Fahadouli, 42, who claimed to have witnessed the second attack. "They fired from the bushes as the convoy was passing. The truck was packed with soldiers. With my own eyes, I saw seven Americans, maybe wounded, maybe dead."

Fahadouli estimated the number of Iraqi attackers at three or four.


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

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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030918 USIRAQ attack