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5 American soldiers killed; missing Marine in U.S. custody

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Rebels killed five American soldiers and an Iraqi guard north of Baghdad on Thursday as violence raged the day after Prime Minister Iyad Allawi signed tough new security laws to empower his government against the nation's persistent insurgency.

Also, a Lebanese-born Marine once missing in Iraq and feared beheaded was picked up Thursday by U.S. authorities, who took him to the American embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun's appearance ended a week of conflicting reports on whether or not Muslim militants had beheaded him.

Allawi also announced Thursday that radiological and nuclear materials left over from Saddam Hussein's regime were shipped to the United States after an investigation by the U.S. Defense and Energy departments. The cargo included about 2 tons of low-enriched uranium and other agents the former regime could have "diverted to support a nuclear weapons program," according to a statement from Allawi's office.

Still, no evidence has surfaced that Saddam had prepared weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration's main justification for the war in Iraq.

Hassoun had been reported missing since June 20, when he disappeared from his base in western Iraq. A videotape later surfaced, showing him blindfolded and threatened with beheading by his presumed captors. Days later, an Internet posting purportedly from Hassoun's captors said he'd been beheaded.

The U.S. Navy is investigating whether Hassoun's ordeal was a hoax. Earlier this week, a senior American military official in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity, hinted that there was more to Hassoun's story, saying investigators were looking at the case "with a bit of a jaundiced eye."

For the second day in a row, insurgents pounded Iraq's scrappy National Guard service. More than 20 people were wounded in the mortar attack that killed the American soldiers and destroyed the National Guard headquarters in the city of Samarra, about 60 miles north of Baghdad.

Samarra is an insurgent hotbed because of its location in the so-called Sunni Triangle, home to a mixture of nationalist fighters, members of Saddam's former regime and foreign Islamists. In other parts of the city Thursday, three Iraqis died in gunfire directed at a school and near a mosque.

The attacks came a day after rebels in Baghdad waged two protracted gun battles with Iraqi guardsmen supported by U.S. soldiers. Wednesday's attacks left at least two Iraqi guardsmen dead and 10 wounded. Taha Hussein, a spokesman for the prime minister, said 19 gunmen were killed and nine suspects were arrested in the incidents.

Despite the escalation in violence, Allawi has no immediate plans to call on the sweeping security measures he signed into law Wednesday, Hussein said. The laws give the government the power to impose curfews and conduct house-to-house searches, albeit with rules governing the extent of martial law.

"We don't want to use it right away. You can see the level of resistance and violence has started to decrease, " Hussein said. "You can see the National Guardsmen and police all over the streets, so the situation is better than before. Iyad Allawi will use the emergency law only when the situation worsens."

An apparent car bomb exploded Thursday afternoon outside a fabric factory on the southern outskirts of Baghdad, killing the factory's middle-aged owner and igniting a large fire. Eyewitnesses said the blast ripped through Ali Abbas Hassan's red Toyota as he was leaving work. The U.S. military had no information on the incident. Arabic-language TV reported that Hassan was a high-level member of Saddam's Baath Party.

Iraq's hostage crisis continues to unfold, with two chilling new videos broadcast on Arab TV. A sobbing Filipino worker and a stone-faced Egyptian driver were shown separately with masked gunmen who threatened to kill them. The videos prompted the Filipino and Egyptian governments to call for their citizens to stop working in Iraq.

Lawyers for Saddam canceled plans to visit the imprisoned former dictator after militants in another video released Thursday vowed to behead anyone defending "the cowardly criminal."


(Special correspondent David George contributed to this story from Baghdad.)


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