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2 soldiers killed in roadside bomb; U.S. strikes Saddam's hometown

FALLUJAH, Iraq—A roadside bomb explosion Saturday killed two U.S. soldiers and injured a third as the U.S. military staged a show of force at Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit near where a Blackhawk helicopter crashed Friday, killing six U.S. soldiers.

The latest two soldiers to die in Iraq were killed when their Bradley Fighting Vehicle was struck by the blast outside the unruly town of Fallujah, 35 miles west of Baghdad. They were with the 1st Infantry Division.

Separately, U.S. troops with the 4th Infantry Division staged a massive demonstration of firepower before dawn in apparent retaliation for Friday's helicopter downing. Soldiers fired mortars and tank shells into a warehouse and two houses that insurgents were believed to have used to stage attacks in recent days, according to televised reports. U.S. military jets also dropped bombs at the site, according to a newswire report that could not be confirmed.

The U.S. retaliatory strike at Tikrit is likely to inflame anti-American calls for revenge among locals, but it reflects a hardening attitude in the U.S. military that stronger measures are needed to quell an insurgency that has claimed 149 American soldiers since President Bush declared an end to major combat operations six months ago.

Saturday's deaths brought to 34 the number of U.S. soldiers killed in action in Iraq during the last seven days, the bloodiest week for American troops since the end of major combat operations. Last Sunday, guerillas shot down a Chinook helicopter with a surface-to-air missile, killing 16 soldiers and wounding 20. On Friday, a Blackhawk helicopter crashed and caught fire near Tikrit, killing all six soldiers aboard. The cause of the crash remains unknown.

According to Pentagon figures, 390 soldiers have died in Iraq since the war began last March, 263 of them by hostile fire. Since the president's May 1 declaration, 149 soldiers in Iraq have died in combat.

The soldiers killed Saturday were part of the 1st Infantry Division, but assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division Task Force that has responsibility over western Iraq. The soldiers were part of a unit that specialized in sweeping local roads for the explosives, the biggest killer of U.S. troops in Iraq. The incident was the first fatal attack on an armored vehicle in the area in at least two months.

"It was an extremely lucky shot," said 1st Sgt. Greg Westbrook, 40, a 1st Infantry Division soldier who was at the scene.

One soldier died instantly, and another died of his wounds a short time later, said 1st Lt. Robert St. Jean, a spokesman for the 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, to which the soldiers were assigned. The third soldier suffered a wound to the chest and was evacuated for treatment.

The Bradley was struck along a highway that the mechanized 1st Division soldiers patrol twice daily looking for bombs. The attack was the first on the route in more than a week.

Yussuf Yah'aa, 15, was at school about a mile away on the northern outskirts of Fallujah when he heard the 8:15 a.m. explosion.

"We ran up onto the roof," he said. "We saw a lot of smoke and fire. There were a lot of smaller explosions later as all of the ammunition inside went off. Then the Army came and closed down the road."

The Bradley was still smoldering five hours after the attack. The uniform of one soldier patrolling the highway on foot was covered in dark swaths of blood. A squad ducked behind a metal guardrail as automatic weapons fire rattled in the distance and bullets zinged past overhead. Unable to spot the shooters, the soldiers did not return fire.

Prior to Saturday's fatal attack, 1st Infantry Division soldiers who regularly patrol the highway said they had found 38 of the roadside bombs in the last two months. All but four had been found before insurgents could explode them and were detonated safely. Though a handful of soldiers had been wounded, the unit had suffered no fatalities prior to Saturday's attack.

The soldiers said the bombs are usually composed of mortar or artillery shells and contain an improvised fusing device. They are usually buried on the side of the road or hidden in debris. The most lethal bombs consist of 120mm or 155mm shells, and some have been found with as many as nine shells fused together, an arrangement known as a "daisy chain." Insurgents generally detonate the devices from a distance using electrical wire and devices such as car batteries. More sophisticated bombs found in recent weeks were designed to explode by wireless means, using electrical devices such as garage-door openers and satellite phones.

Soldiers interviewed in recent days said they have seen larger and increasingly sophisticated bombs in recent weeks, some of which appeared to be designed to destroy tanks and other armored vehicles.

Speaking to reporters in Baghdad on Saturday, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said Bush administration and coalition officials are "sobered by the problem" of rising casualties, but after meeting with Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. commander, Armitage expressed confidence that U.S. troops would eventually root out anti-coalition resistance.

"We have a very solid plan to go out and get these people who are killing us and killing Iraqis," he said. "I'm pretty convinced after this short visit that we are going to take the fight to the enemy."

Because of the worsening security situation, the International Committee of the Red Cross announced Saturday that it was temporarily shutting down operations in Baghdad and the southern city of Basra.

Late Saturday night, the most raucous explosion of gunfire in months erupted in Baghdad. Locals said it appeared to be celebratory, marking a victory by Iraq's national soccer team in international competition.

Meanwhile, in Kirkuk, about 160 miles northwest of Baghdad, the military said soldiers had captured a person believed to be a former bodyguard of deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who remains in hiding. The former bodyguard was believed to be involved in some attacks on U.S. troops in recent weeks, the military said in a statement. He was captured without incident, along with an AK-47 rifle, 1,000 rounds of ammunition, a machine pistol and one shotgun.

In a separate statement, the military said the cause of Friday's helicopter crash near Tikrit remains unclear, although initial findings rule out that it was shot down by a surface-to-air missile.

Last week, another Blackhawk near Tikrit was forced to make an emergency landing after being struck by a rocket-propelled grenade. There were no casualties. Insurgents also shot down an Apache helicopter in June, but the two crewmen escaped unhurt.


(Knight Ridder photographer David Gilkey and correspondent Maureen Fan contributed to this report.)


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