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At least 5 Navy Seabees, soldier killed in mortar attack on base

CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq—Insurgents fired mortars inside a U.S. base in Ramadi Sunday, killing a soldier and five Navy Seabees from a Florida reserve unit and wounding about 20 others. The casualties bring to seven the number of sailors killed in three days from the same unit, which arrived here just two weeks ago to work on Iraqi reconstruction projects.

Separately, American truck driver Thomas Hamill, 43, of Macon, Miss., escaped his Iraqi kidnappers three weeks after he was taken captive after an ambush on his convoy. Hamill's face was broadcast across the globe in a chilling video that raised the specter of a Lebanonlike hostage drama in Iraq.

Hamill walked up to a New York National Guard Unit on patrol in Balad, 30 miles south of Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, the U.S. military said. He had a gunshot wound in his arm but was in good health. The Halliburton contractor then led soldiers back to the house where he was held; soldiers surrounded it and captured two Iraqis.

"He had an opportunity to escape, saw some U.S. forces and made his dash," said Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on a Sunday morning television news show.

Hamill's supply convoy was ambushed April 9 between Fallujah and Abu Graib, west of Baghdad. There was no word on the fate of another captive, Army Pfc. Keith Maupin, 20, of Batavia, Ohio, who was in the same ambush and shown on a separate video.

In all, nine American forces were killed across Iraq in guerrilla attacks Sunday, including two soldiers killed in northwest Baghdad and another in the northern oil city of Kirkuk. None were identified.

But the mortar shelling of a Marine base in Ramadi caused the worst Navy casualties of the year-old Iraqi invasion, and came as the Marines are forging an alliance with Iraqi Army generals to quell a ferocious anti-American insurrection in Fallujah, the flashpoint Sunni Muslim city of 250,000.

Ramadi had seen some of the fiercest fighting of western Iraq's Anbar province in the month-plus Marine deployment. Twelve Marines were killed in a single ambush of their patrol there on April 6.

"They really don't like us," said Navy Petty Officer 3d Class Michael Rambo, 27, a Seabee from Clearwater, Fla., who suffered shrapnel wounds in his chest and side, as he lay at Camp Fallujah's Bravo Surgical Co. hospital awaiting X-rays on Sunday night.

Friday, he suffered a sprained thumb and other light injuries when insurgents fired missiles at a U.S convoy of armored Humvees carrying engineering inspectors to school-building projects in a neighboring village. Two fellow sailors were killed in that attack, and two more were wounded.

Sunday's mortar attack was far worse, tearing through dozens of Seabees who just moments before mustered in the yard of a Marine base for a visiting admiral. Just after Navy Rear Adm. Charles Kubic stepped away, a mortar round struck about 300 yards from the men. As they scattered, a second mortar made a near direct hit, killing some sailors on the spot and spewing shrapnel around the yard.

Navy corpsman converged on the scene, and then evacuated the casualties by helicopter in 10-minute intervals to medical field hospitals across western Iraq. The most serious went to Baghdad and Balad.

"It was real quick, the medical evacuation plan worked, and they did a great job," said Rambo, an ex-Marine and part-time children's pastor at a Tampa Sunday School who was in college until he was called up to reserve duty with his unit late last year.

"We'll get through this," he said of the devastation to his unit, Naval Mobile Combat Battalion 14, based in Jacksonville, Fla.

Just two weeks in Iraq, the 400-member reserve unit is on its first overseas deployment since World War II, where it served in the Pacific, specifically in Guadalcanal and New Caledonia. Unit members are on average 42 years old.

Friday's attack came as a U.S. military convoy was moving between Al Asad base and Ramadi. Insurgents fired explosives, killing two Seabees, and surviving sailors fought back. Rambo came out shooting and captured one the insurgents, who is now "an EPW," an enemy prisoner of war, a fellow sailor said.

None of the dead and wounded was identified to give the Pentagon time to notify the sailors' next of kin in what Marine Maj. T.V. Johnson characterized as a "mass casualty" episode. "It's been a bad couple of days for the Seabees," he said.

"We're here to help rebuild the country, help them out, trying to keep all the bad guys from taking over like Saddam," said Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class James Nappier, 46, of West Palm Beach, Fla., a water well driller, before surgery to remove shrapnel from his leg and arm. "Some guys were still reeling from the other day."

These Seabees arrived a month ago in Kuwait as a unit, then were spread around five different U.S. bases in Iraq. An officer who asked not to be identified said it was the worst mass casualties on a Seabee unit since the Vietnam War.

In contrast, the Marines reported scattered skirmishes but no major fighting in and around Fallujah two days after commanders withdrew thousands of Marine forces that had laid siege to the city for nearly three weeks.

By Sunday, Marines occupied only 10 percent of Fallujah, compared to 25 percent a week ago, and Johnson reported that armed ex-Iraqi Army soldiers of the new Fallujah Brigade numbered about 600. They were sent into Fallujah to kill or capture foreign fighters and other insurgents who have attacked U.S. forces.

Mostly Sunday, though, they were overseeing the return of hundreds of Fallujans who had fled the fighting.

In southern Iraq, clashes escalated over the weekend between American forces and militiamen loyal to the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, overshadowing efforts by tribal leaders and the Najaf police chief to curb the violence. Mahdi Army militiamen lobbed mortars and grenades at some 2,500 U.S. troops encamped outside the city Sunday, a day after the guerrillas ambushed an American convoy, killing two soldiers and setting their vehicles on fire.

The U.S.-led coalition is insisting that al-Sadr's Mahdi Army be disbanded and the young Shiite leader be arrested in the grisly slaying of a pro-American cleric in Najaf a year ago.

But al-Sadr and his gunmen have vowed to fight to the death.

The Sunday Telegraph reported, meanwhile, that Britain would dispatch 4,000 more troops to the predominantly Shiite south to replace a Spanish Battalion that left Najaf last week. It will be the largest expansion of British forces of the year-old U.S.-led invasion.

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(Knight Ridder Newspaper correspondents Hannah Allam and Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson contributed to this report from Baghdad, Iraq.)

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

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