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Bomb attacks kill six U.S. soldiers as coalition forces step up pressure on insurgents

BAGHDAD, Iraq — A suicide attack and roadside bombings killed six American soldiers, the U.S. command said Wednesday, as U.S. and Iraqi troops staged raids in Ramadi and Baqouba, stepping up pressure on Sunni insurgents before this week's start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

A suicide driver plowed into a U.S. convoy and blew up his car Wednesday in the northern city of Mosul, killing two American soldiers and wounding five, according to the military. It was the second deadly suicide attack against American convoys in Mosul in the past three days.

In Baghdad, Iraq's interim prime minister also warned that U.S. and Iraqi forces will launch military operations in the main insurgent stronghold Fallujah if residents do not hand over Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose group has kidnapped and beheaded numerous foreigners.

During Wednesday's raids, U.S. troops swept into the Sunni stronghold of Ramadi and joined Iraqi police and National Guardsmen in raids in Baqouba after a day of fierce clashes in militant enclaves stretching from the gates of Baghdad to the Syrian border.

Last year, insurgents sharply increased their attacks against U.S. and coalition forces during Ramadan, expected to start at the end of this week. Extremists believe they win a special place in paradise if they die in a jihad, or holy war, during Ramadan.

Three of the U.S. deaths occurred late Tuesday when a roadside bomb exploded near a U.S. convoy in eastern Baghdad, the U.S. command said. Another American soldier died in a bombing before dawn Wednesday in western Baghdad.

Two soldiers were killed Wednesday in the Mosul attack and five were wounded, two of whom returned to duty later in the day, the military said. One U.S. soldier was killed Monday in a similar suicide operation.

More than 1,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops launched two simultaneous raids Wednesday around Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, to clear the area of insurgents.

One of the early morning operations took place just south of the city, in the village of Daliabbas, said Capt. Marshall Jackson, spokesman for the 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division. Several people were detained. The other operation also took place in Baqouba though no location was given.

"Basically, it's a pre-Ramadan operation just to clear up some of the area around Baqouba," Jackson said.

The city has been relatively peaceful in recent months, but U.S. commanders noted an upswing in insurgent activity during last year's Ramadan in Diyala province.

In an unrelated attack, a police captain was killed Wednesday in a drive-by shooting near Baqouba, officials said. Insurgents regularly target Iraq's security forces, which are seen as collaborators with the United States and its allies.

In Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, U.S. troops sealed off key streets and searched buildings after days of clashes, residents reported. The U.S. command had no comment on the operation.

On Tuesday, Iraqi government soldiers supported by U.S. Marine and Army units raided seven mosques in Ramadi, detaining four people and seizing bomb-making materials and pro-insurgent literature, the military said.

The Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni clerical group suspected of links to the insurgency, condemned the mosque raids as an example of alleged American hostility toward Islam.

The U.S. command said the raids followed an increase in insurgent attacks in Ramadi and accused the militants of violating the sanctity of the mosques by using them for military purposes. Marine spokesman Maj. Francis Piccoli said U.S. troops provided backup for the Iraqi soldiers but did not enter the mosques.

In the north, Iraqi soldiers patrolling Tal Afar on Tuesday detained 18 suspected militants, while a joint U.S.-Iraqi operation in Mosul netted five suspected rebels wanted for mortar attacks on military bases and "intimidating local civilians," the military said in a statement. Two more suspects were arrested southeast of Samarra, the statement said.

U.S. and Iraqi forces have used a mix of diplomacy and pressure to try to suppress Iraq's mounting insurgency in time to hold nationwide elections in January.

A wave of deadly bombings, mortar and rocket attacks, kidnappings and shooting sprees has forced the United States to divert funds from reconstruction to security.

In Tokyo, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Armitage acknowledged that the United States was initially too slow in channeling money to Iraq, telling a donor's conference in the Japanese capital that "it took longer than necessary to get our act together prior to turning over sovereignty" on June 28.

This has created a "void," particularly in the electrical and water sectors in Iraq, Armitage said. But he added: "It's not a complete void. We have other money going in."

Armitage stressed the United States — Iraq's leading donor nation, with a pledge of $18.4 billion — is "picking up the pace."

Meanwhile, Iraq's interim government assured the International Atomic Energy Agency that all nuclear facilities under its control were well protected.

In a letter to the U.N. Security Council on Monday, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said satellite photos and follow-up investigations show "widespread and apparently systematic dismantlement" at sites related to Iraq's nuclear program that had once been subject to stringent monitoring.

Science and Technology Minister Rashad Omar said the missing items — which the IAEA says includes milling machines and electron beam welders — were taken in the looting spree that broke out after last year's U.S.-led invasion and the sites were quickly secured.

Allawi's government has been negotiating with representatives from Fallujah to secure the city, which is controlled by extremist clerics and armed followers. Fallujah is also believed to be the base for al-Zarqawi's feared Tawhid and Jihad group.

Allawi told the Iraqi National Council Wednesday that if people in Fallujah do not hand over al-Zarqawi and his followers, "we will carry out operations in Fallujah."

Allawi also warned that the more the U.S. and Iraqi forces step up pressure against the insurgents, the more "they will try to escalate the attacks."

Separately, a videotape posted Wednesday on Islamic Web site showed militants linked to al-Zarqawi beheading two Iraqis purported to be intelligence officers.

The 10-minute tape showed two captives, Fadhel Ibrahim and Firas Imeil, identifying themselves as Iraqi National Intelligence officers and saying they were captured in Baghdad's Haifa Street on Sept. 28.

The authenticity of the tape, which was released in the name of the Brigades of Abu Bakr Al-Sidiq, could not immediately be verified.

In other developments:

— A U.S. official said ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein underwent surgery about two weeks ago to repair a hernia and has made a full recovery.

— Investigators seeking evidence to use in a future trial of Saddam uncovered more than 100 bodies in a mass grave near the northern Iraqi village of Hatra. The bodies were believed to be Kurds killed during Saddam's crackdown in 1987-88.