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Central Baghdad street, Green Zone hit by mortar fire

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Mortar fire struck a central Baghdad street and the city's heavily fortified "Green Zone" Thursday, and the U.S. Embassy barred civilian personnel from using the main road to the airport, developments that underscored how insurgents still terrorize Iraq's capital despite an increasing American military presence.

Visiting U.S. senators voiced concern about the security situation, saying Iraqis must feel safe if elections set for Jan. 30 are to be seen as legitimate.

"I saw fear. I saw people huddled on the streets," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who joined fellow Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware and Republican Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska on a one-day swing through Iraq.

U.S. officials announced Wednesday that U.S. troop strength in Iraq will grow from 138,000 to 150,000 before the elections in an effort to prevent insurgents from disrupting the vote.

Witnesses said one person was killed and several wounded Thursday when at least five mortar rounds fell in the central district of al Karrada and the Green Zone between 10:15 and 10:55 a.m. One round shattered windows at a cellular telephone office and knocked down part of an adjacent building.

"We were sitting in our shop when suddenly we heard a huge explosion. People came running inside," said Ismat Yassim, a furniture store clerk. "At least three men were wounded. We gave them tissue paper because that's all we had."

A watchman at a neighboring construction site, Akram Salman, said a laborer there had been killed by the blast.

Another mortar round hit a nearby street, destroying a car and wounding several people, and a third round was seen splashing into the Tigris River.

There was no information on what damage mortar rounds may have done in the Green Zone, an area that houses the interim government, American military personnel and several embassies. Witnesses saw several rounds land in the zone and could hear sirens wailing, but U.S. officials offered no details.

A rocket attack on the zone Nov. 25 killed four Nepalese security contractors and wounded more than a dozen others.

American civilians working in the zone now must use helicopters, rather than armored cars, to get to the international airport after the embassy announced its ban on road traffic "until further notice."

The 10-mile highway to the airport has become perhaps the most poignant symbol of the United States' inability to bring stability to Iraq. It's the scene of near-daily explosions, sniper attacks and suicide car bombs. In the past month, 14 drivers in explosives-laden cars have rammed into American convoys along the highway.


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