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Military investigating whether guerrillas knew of generals' convoy

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The U.S.-led coalition is trying to determine whether a security breach may have led to a grenade attack Thursday on a military convoy that was carrying Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of all American forces in the Middle East, and another top U.S. general.

Abizaid and Gen. Charles Swannack escaped unharmed after guerrillas fired rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons at their convoy from rooftops in Fallujah, about 30 miles west of Baghdad, military officials said. A spokesman said it was too early to tell whether the assailants attacked the convoy as a target of opportunity or whether they had been tipped off that the two generals were in it.

"Whether we can directly link this attack to any foreknowledge that General Abizaid and General Swannack were going to be there is a leap that we are not going to make at this time," said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq.

Kimmitt said an investigation was under way to find out whether insurgents knew in advance of the generals' afternoon visit to an Iraqi civil defense corps compound. He added that American troops returned fire and unsuccessfully pursued the attackers. Kimmitt said troops searched a mosque that was thought to be harboring the men, but made no arrests.

In the past, U.S. officials in Iraq and Washington have said that some Iraqis working for the American military and the civilian administration may be spies for the insurgents.

Meanwhile, coalition spokesmen had no comments on reports that Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani, a reclusive cleric whose rulings are considered law by most of Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority, repeated his insistence on direct elections in a meeting Thursday with the leader of a United Nations delegation that's in Iraq to study whether such polls are feasible by this summer.

Sistani's insistence on selecting a new Iraqi government through direct elections rather than a caucus system proposed by the United States has slowed preparations to return control of the country to Iraqis by June 30.

Fallujah is an anti-American hotbed in the so-called Sunni Triangle area, which is home to many diehard supporters of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. After the attack, Abizaid and Swannack, the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, canceled plans to walk into the city and returned to a military base instead.

Abizaid is the third high-profile American official to survive an attack in Iraq. In December, gunmen fired on a convoy that was carrying L. Paul Bremer, the top civilian administrator for Iraq. No one was injured. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was at a Baghdad hotel in October that was hit by a rocket. A colonel was killed and 18 other coalition workers were wounded.

Other U.S. forces have come under attack in the past 24 hours. Two soldiers from the Army's 1st Armored Division died and a third was wounded after a roadside bomb exploded in Baghdad late Wednesday night. The soldiers were on patrol in the western part of the city when they were attacked at 9:30 p.m., according to a military statement. The deaths brought to 257 the number of American soldiers who've been killed in combat since President Bush declared major operations over last May.

On Thursday, insurgents fired eight mortars into an American base in Baghdad, slightly wounding three soldiers. Three military vehicles had shrapnel damage, Kimmitt said.

The attacks continued a week of devastating violence in which more than 100 Iraqi civilians and security personnel were killed in suicide bombings Tuesday and Wednesday. About 50 people died in each of the strikingly similar blasts at a police station in Iskandariyah, south of Baghdad, and at an army recruiting station in the capital.

Coalition spokesmen reiterated Thursday their charges that the attacks probably are the work of foreign fighters who've infiltrated Iraq since the war to turn it into a staging ground for anti-American terrorism. The military has doubled the bounty to $10 million for Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian who claimed responsibility for 25 suicide operations in a letter released this week by the coalition.


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.