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4 U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan as insurgents step up attacks

KABUL, Afghanistan—A roadside bomb attack killed four U.S. soldiers and wounded three others in southern Afghanistan on Sunday as Taliban insurgents pressed an escalating guerrilla war nearly four years after their radical Islamic movement was swept from power.

Also Sunday, an improvised explosive device detonated under a U.S. Embassy vehicle in a suburb of Kabul, slightly wounding two embassy staffers.

The attacks come amid a growing insurgency by the Taliban that U.S. military commanders and Afghan officials describe as a campaign to impede Sept. 18 parliamentary and provincial council elections intended to put Afghanistan on a path to democracy and peace.

Some experts, however, believe that the upsurge in attacks may be part of a longer-term strategy coordinated by the insurgents' al-Qaida allies to tie down and bleed overstretched U.S. forces both in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The violence in southern and eastern provinces bordering Pakistan comes just over two years after Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld declared that major combat operations in Afghanistan were over.

The four U.S. soldiers died when an improvised explosive device exploded under their armored vehicle in the mountainous Deh Chopan district of Zabul province, one of the worst hit by the insurgency, said a statement by the 20,000-strong coalition of mostly U.S. forces.

A fire ignited by the first blast set of secondary explosions that wounded three others as they tried to reach their fellow soldiers.

The deaths brought to at least seven the number of American troops killed in Afghanistan in four days.

The unit was participating in a larger operation launched as part of an aggressive U.S.-led counterinsurgency drive aimed at keeping Taliban fighters from disrupting the elections by hunting them down in their remote mountain enclaves.

The identifications and unit of the dead and injured troops were not immediately disclosed.

The statement quoted U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Jason Kamiya, operational commander of the U.S.-led coalition, as saying such attacks would "strengthen, not weaken" the determination of the force and its Afghan government allies.

"These types of attacks also demonstrate the enemy's desperation and cowardliness," he said "The enemy knows that he is at a race with time, a race that he will inevitably lose."

The U.S. Embassy staffers sustained minor injuries when an improvised bomb exploded under their vehicle as it was driven in a convoy on routine embassy business, said Lou Fintor, a spokesman for the U.S. mission.

The attack was the first against U.S. diplomatic personnel in Kabul in months.

It was not immediately clear if the strike was pre-planned or the bombers were simply waiting for a target of opportunity when they spotted the embassy convoy.

It is routine operating procedure for diplomatic convoys to vary their routes to avoid pre-planned strikes.

An upsurge in Taliban assaults, bombings and assassinations since the beginning of the year has killed an estimated 1,000 Afghans, including public officials, soldiers, police, Muslim clerics aligned with the government of President Hamid Karzai and civilians.

At least 72 U.S. service members involved in the U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan have died since Jan. 1, making 2005 the costliest year for the United States since the U.S.-led intervention ousted the Taliban in November 2001.

The previous high was in 2004 when 52 U.S. service members were killed.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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

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