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Explosions, intense action seen in Baghdad

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Christmas Eve in Iraq began with the deaths of three U.S. soldiers and the boom and thud of artillery shells and automatic gunfire in Baghdad.

During the darkness of early morning, Iraq's capital shook as explosions rocked spots used by insurgents to launch mortars at U.S. installations.

At about 9:10 a.m. near the northern city of Samarra, a roadside bomb killed three U.S. soldiers. Since May 1, when President Bush declared the end of major combat operations, 205 American troops have died.

About two and a half hours after the Samarra blast, still farther north in the town of Irbil, a suicide car-bomber blew himself up in front of the Kurdish Ministry of the Interior. At least two Iraqis other than the bomber were killed.

About 8:30 p.m., an explosion rocked downtown Baghdad, near the Sheraton Ishtar Hotel. Capt. Jason Beck of the 1st Armored Division said it was probably caused by a rocket-propelled grenade that missed or nicked the hotel. A gunfight ensued, though it was unclear who was doing the shooting.

Military commanders in the past few days have said that intelligence information points to some sort of offensive being launched on Christmas Day.

At a news conference Wednesday, U.S. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt wouldn't characterize the risk of attack during the holiday season. He did, however, give a warning.

"This is a special season for many, but anti-coalition and anti-Iraqi elements would be well-advised not to misjudge this period or miscalculate our capabilities," he said. "We will not let down our guard."

Many in Baghdad took the onslaught of early morning American firepower to be as much a show of force as a targeted strike. Shortly after midnight, the artillery rounds were followed by flashes that illuminated neighborhoods that were dark because the electricity is out.

After an extensive tour of parts of the town where the shells seemed to hit, it was clear that they were aimed mainly at fields and farmland, where insurgents apparently launch mortars before running off.

While the numbers have declined, a military spokesman said there is a daily average of 17 attacks against coalition soldiers. Kimmitt said that in the previous 24 hours, troops had captured more than 50 people suspected of being part of the insurgency.

Following Saddam Hussein's recent detention, the man most sought by U.S. military is former Vice President Izzat Ibrahim al Douri, No. 6 on the list of the 55 most-wanted people in Iraq. There is widespread suspicion that al Douri, who has a $10 million bounty on his head, is coordinating at least some of the attacks on American soldiers.

Hussein Hassan, an Iraqi who installs satellite receivers, was sitting at home when he heard Wednesday's artillery explosions.

"The timing was bad. It's Christmas, a season of happiness," he said. "It's wrong to start it with sadness."

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

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

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