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At least 25 Iraqis killed in Baghdad in series of violent attacks

BAGHDAD, Iraq—An intense, well-coordinated and widespread series of mortar blasts, rocket attacks and suicide car bombings rocked Baghdad Sunday in a day of violence that alarmed government officials and left at least 25 Iraqis dead in the capital alone.

U.S. troops battled insurgents for at least two hours in central Baghdad, where Iraqi crowds swarming over a charred Bradley fighting vehicle were fired on by a U.S. helicopter, wounding dozens and killing 13, including a producer for an Arab satellite television station.

U.S. and Iraqi troops also thwarted at least two car bombings, one at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, another at the entrance to the U.S.-controlled International Zone. A third bomber succeeded in hitting a military convoy on the road to the Baghdad airport, destroying several vehicles and wounding three Americans and two Iraqis.

A militant group led by the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed credit for the mayhem in a statement posted on the internet. The group, called Tawhid and Jihad, crowed that it had "the capability to surprise the enemy and hit its strategic installations at the right time and place."

Iraqi government officials acknowledged that the capital was becoming more dangerous—something that has been evident in the weeks since the United States surrendered sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government June 28.

"There's no doubt this is a definite escalation of the violence. There is obviously some coordination, and their aim is to topple the government," said Sabah Kadim, a spokesman for Iraq's Interior Ministry. "We're not prepared to accept that."

There as no official announcement of American casualties, but reports indicated at least 11 had been wounded in the fighting. There were no reports of U.S. military deaths.

Elsewhere in Iraq, three Polish soldiers were killed in clashes with insurgents near the city of Hillah, south of Baghdad. Two roadside bombs in the same city killed three Iraqi guardsmen.

In Ramadi, west of Baghdad, clashes between insurgents and U.S. forces left 10 people dead and 40 wounded. Gunmen in the northern city of Mosul killed one policeman and wounded seven more.

The Health Ministry set the day's death toll at 59, 25 of those in Baghdad. The toll of wounded was in excess of 200, 102 of those in the capital.

For Baghdad, the assault began near dawn, with more than a dozen booming explosions as rockets and large mortar rounds rained down on targets in and around the International Zone. Thick plumes of smoke were seen rising from the area as the sun rose.

When U.S. patrols fanned out, seeking the insurgents, the gun battles began. The fighting was particularly intense along Haifa Street, a major city artery that has become the scene of fierce hostility toward American troops.

A car bomb there crippled a U.S. Bradley fighting vehicle, injuring its four crewmembers. Four more soldiers were wounded by gunfire and grenade fragments as they pulled the crew to safety, a U.S. military spokesman said.

When the fighting paused, insurgents and local children gathered around the burning vehicle, jumping and cheering. The celebration ended moments later, as U.S. helicopters strafed the Bradley and the surrounding area, injuring dozens and killing several, witnesses said.

Mazen al-Tumeizi, a producer for the Arabic-language Al Arabiya television station, was among the victims. His cameraman recorded al-Tumeizi's final words, which were later broadcast on al Arabiya.

"I'm dying. I'm dying," he reported.

Other journalists were hurt on Haifa Street. A Reuters news agency cameraman was shot in the leg, and a Getty Images photographer was struck in the head by a flying chunk of concrete knocked loose by a bullet that hit the ground.

Pools of blood were left on the street after the helicopter strike. The Health Ministry reported that 13 Iraqis were killed and 61 wounded in the Haifa Street fighting.

"Our only intent was to ensure that the vehicle and its equipment would not be taken and used by anti-Iraqi forces for further action against the Iraqi people," said a military spokeswoman. A military statement said the incident was under investigation.

At the same time, troops stationed in the International Zone were tallying how many mortars had landed there that morning.

"I kind of lost count after 12," said Maj. Jay Antonelli, a military spokesman.

Soldiers manning a checkpoint leading into the zone were hazarding their own guesses when they heard a car crash, and the cracking of Iraqi National Guardsmen's guns: A suicide bomber was attempting to storm past the checkpoint.

The bomber lost control of the car as soldiers fired, but still managed to detonate the bomb, as bystanders ran for safety behind a nearby blast wall.

As U.S. soldiers yelled at everyone to get down, there was a second explosion—the car's gas tank had caught fire. Shrapnel fell on both sides of the blast wall, but no one was hurt—other than the bomber—and there was no major damage.

It was a minor incident by the soldiers' standards. Minutes later, a solider casually resumed his patrol, singing the chorus of an Emerson, Lake & Palmer song: "Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends."

The attempted suicide bombing at the Abu Ghraib prison took place at about the same time, shortly after a barrage of mortar shells landed near the prison. The bomber was shot dead before he could reach the prison's wall and detonate his explosives, said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson. Troops stationed at the prison fended off a similar attack three weeks ago, Johnson said.

The third suicide bombing occurred shortly before noon, striking a joint convoy of American and Iraqi National Guard troops near the Baghdad airport. The attack destroyed several vehicles and injured three American soldiers and two Iraqi civilians.

A pair of Iraqi policemen guarding a nearby building said such attacks were not unusual on the dangerous route to the airport.

Though they wouldn't give their names, the officers were talkative, and thirsty. They asked for some water, and complained that they needed better equipment to take on the militants.

Moments later, as the visitors drove away, an explosion rocked the ground seemingly right where the police officers were standing. It was not immediately clear if they were injured or killed in the attack.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Yasser Salihee contributed to this report. Kerkstra reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Youssef for The Detroit Free Press.)

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

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

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