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Two U.S. soldiers die in Fallujah ambush

Monte Morin Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq – A car bomb and rocket grenade attack killed two U.S. soldiers and injured five others as their convoy rumbled past Fallujah on Sunday, the first such deadly attack since U.S. Marines ended 3 1/2 weeks of siege late last month.

The ambush occurred during a day of heavy fighting to the southeast as U.S. helicopters, planes and ground troops hammered insurgents in the holy cities of Kufa and Najaf, killing more than 60 religious militia fighters and civilians, according to the military and local hospitals. The attacks, including a raid on a Kufa mosque allegedly harboring insurgents and being used to store weapons, are intended to destroy units of the Al Mahdi army loyal to radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

“We’ve been keeping the pressure on them and we’re whittling away at them,” said Army Maj. David Gercken, a spokesman for the 1st Armored Division. “A lot of these guys are misguided. We’re trying to give them the message that Sadr is not the future of Iraq.”

The attack in Fallujah was the only report of American lives lost in fighting Sunday. It brings the unofficial U.S. military death toll to about 790 since the invasion in March 2003.

Fallujah was mostly quiet this month after the U.S. Marines handed responsibility for the city’s security to a force that included former officers of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Coalition forces had encircled the city for weeks, launching attacks and searching for those who killed four U.S. civilian security contractors and mutilated their bodies. On Sunday, the U.S. military gave Iraqi police a list of the names of 25 suspects.

In Kufa, as part of “Operation Iron Saber,” armored vehicles crashed through the wooden gates of the Sahla mosque as Iraqi counterterrorism troops swept into the green-domed structure and traded gunfire with insurgents. Once they had cleared the building, U.S. troops entered and began searching for weapons, officials said. They discovered a cache of hundreds of mortar rounds, rocket grenades and launchers.

The raid, which left the mosque bloodied and bullet-pocked, was condemned by some residents who said the Americans had violated sacred ground.

Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who commands the 1st Armored Division, said U.S. troops were taking care not to enter or damage sites holy to Shiite Muslims, even though al-Sadr’s fighters were using them as fighting positions.

Iraqi security forces and U.S. troops also battled insurgents at Kufa’s nearby technical college and a building known as Saddam’s Palace. In all, 32 insurgents were reported killed.

In Najaf, helicopters and AC-130 gunships fired relentlessly at positions north of the city’s vast, ancient cemetery. The cemetery, a suspected warren of tunnels and weapons caches, is frequently used by militia members to launch mortar rounds at the city’s police station and U.S. Army bases.

At local hospitals, doctors reported more than 30 people killed.

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