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Fighting breaks out near Baghdad’s Green Zone

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Strong explosions shook central Baghdad early today, and fighting erupted on a major street in the heart of the city near the U.S.-guarded Green Zone.

Rocket and mortar fire erupted about 5:30 a.m. and continued into the morning. Several rounds landed in the Green Zone, raising clouds of black smoke and triggering warning sirens.

The rattle of heavy machine-gun fire echoed through Haifa Street, located on the western side of the Tigris River near the Green Zone and a “no go” area for international forces. A Bradley fighting vehicle caught fire and children climbed on top, cheering and dancing beside the flames.

U.S. soldiers took positions behind walls and trees along Haifa Street and residents milled about to watch the battle.

The early-morning explosions followed a late-night barrage that rattled the capital. Three or four projectiles – believed to be either mortar shells or rockets – slammed into apartment buildings across the street from the Palestine and Sheraton hotels, where many journalists are based.

Col. Adnan Abdul-Rahman, an Interior Ministry official, said there were no reports of casualties. Earlier, mortars or rockets exploded near the Green Zone and at a U.S. base in northern Baghdad. No casualties were reported.

Meanwhile, an audiotape purportedly by key terrorism suspect Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, boasted that Islamic holy warriors have humiliated the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. It was impossible to verify the authenticity of the audiotape, which surfaced Saturday, the third anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In Basra, Iraq’s major southern city, a bomb exploded outside a Saddam Hussein palace now housing a U.S. consular office. One person was killed and two were wounded, police said. The victims were believed to be Iraqis.

In Baghdad, a U.S. warplane launched an airstrike on militants loyal to rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr during a battle in the sprawling Sadr City slum.

Elsewhere, insurgents kidnapped the family of an Iraqi national guard officer and burned his home northeast of the capital, Iraqi authorities said Saturday.

Kidnappers seized the wife and three children of Col. Khalis Ali Hussein on Wednesday, said Maj. Gen. Walid Khalid, the head of the Diyala provincial police force.

The incident in Khalis, 40 miles northeast of Baghdad, was the latest act of intimidation against security forces cooperating with the U.S. military. Insurgents consider the Iraqi police and security personnel to be collaborators.

Also in Khalis, gunmen killed a national guard officer, his son and their driver in a drive-by shooting Saturday, Khalid said. The men were traveling to Baghdad at the time.