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U.S. raises security alert in Green Zone, 20 said detained in foiled bombing; two American soldiers killed

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Two American soldiers were killed and two others were wounded in separate attacks involving roadside bombs, U.S. officials said Thursday, and 20 Iraqis were arrested in the north in operations against those suspected of planting explosives.

U.S. authorities, meanwhile, raised the security alert in the heavily guarded Green Zone after an improvised bomb was found in front of a restaurant there.

One U.S. soldier from the 13th Corps Support Command died when a bomb exploded near his convoy late Wednesday outside the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, the command said. Two other soldiers were wounded.

A 1st Infantry Division soldier was killed and an Iraqi interpreter wounded when insurgents attacked a patrol with a roadside bomb near Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad, the command said.

Four U.S. Marines and three Iraqi soldiers were injured this week in an operation to crush insurgents south of Baghdad.

About 240 detainees, meanwhile, were released from U.S. and Iraqi custody Thursday — including a prominent supporter of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the U.S. military said. It was the fourth round of releases under a joint U.S.-Iraqi review process set up Aug. 21 following the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in a continuing effort to reduce the inmate population and free those deemed not to be a security threat.

The publication in April of photographs showing naked, terrified Iraqi prisoners being abused and humiliated by grinning American guards at Abu Ghraib caused outrage here and internationally.

None of those freed Thursday were "high-value" detainees, who are processed separately from the 1,700 "security detainees" held at the Abu Ghraib facility near Baghdad and Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a military spokesman.

About 830 detainees have been released in all since the Combined Review and Release Board began reviewing files in August. The military aims to transfer the bulk of the remaining Abu Ghraib security detainees to Camp Bucca, which currently is being expanded and upgraded to become the primary holding facility at the start of next year, Johnson said.

The warning to Americans and Iraqi officials in the Green Zone followed the discovery Tuesday of an explosive device at the Green Zone Cafe, a popular hangout for Westerners living and working in the compound — which houses major U.S. and Iraqi government offices. A U.S. military ordnance detachment safely disarmed it, U.S. officials said.

A loud explosion shook the Green Zone on Thursday afternoon and smoke was seen rising from inside the compound. The U.S. military had no immediate information on the incident. Insurgents regularly fire at the compound.

Americans living and working in the zone were told to travel in groups and avoid specific areas and nonessential travel.

Although movements in and out of the Green Zone are restricted, about 10,000 Iraqis live inside the 4-square-mile district, located along the western side of the Tigris River.

In Mosul, the U.S. military said American and Iraqi forces detained 20 people in operations in northern Iraq and foiled a roadside bombing Wednesday in the city of Tal Afar, scene of intense fighting last month with insurgents.

A U.S. demolition team defused a homemade bomb found beneath an Iraqi police car, the U.S. command said. Eight people were arrested in raids in Tal Afar, and Iraqi National Guard troops seized two grain sacks full of dynamite, two-way radios used to detonate roadside bombs, and other materials, U.S. authorities said.

Twelve other people were arrested in a series of raids in Mosul, the U.S. command said.

Homemade bombs, including those rigged in cars and trucks, have become an increasing threat because insurgents find them safer than other forms of attack that can draw devastating American return fire. In September, 29 Iraqi and multinational troops were killed by car bombs, according to the U.S. command, which did not break down the figure by nationality.

On Wednesday, a suicide car bomber slammed into an Iraqi military checkpoint northwest of Baghdad, killing 16 Iraqis and wounding about 30, Iraqi officials said. The attack occurred near an Iraqi National Guard camp near Anah, 160 miles northwest of Baghdad on the main highway to Syria. According to the U.S. military, the camp came under fire, and a few minutes later a vehicle sped to a nearby National Guard checkpoint and exploded.

U.S. and Iraqi forces are trying to restore enough control so national elections can be held in January. President Bush and Prime Minister Ayad Allawi insist the vote will take place throughout the country, despite warnings by some U.S. military officials that it may not be possible in some areas.

As part of the new security push, more than 3,000 U.S. and Iraqi forces are trying to clear an insurgent stronghold in towns and villages just south of Baghdad notorious for kidnappings and ambushes.

The U.S. command said 17 suspected insurgents were captured Wednesday in two joint raids by U.S. and Iraqi troops around Haswah and Iskandariyah, both about 30 miles south of Baghdad.

Since the operation began Tuesday, four U.S. Marines, three Iraqi National Guard members and three civilians have been wounded, U.S. officials said. Raids have yielded 18 500-pound bombs, 197 rocket propelled grenades, dozens of mortar shells and other military supplies, the command said.

As military operations continue, the Iraqi government is reported close to an agreement with followers of al-Sadr to end weeks of fighting in his stronghold of Sadr City, a teeming Shiite slum in northeastern Baghdad.

On Thursday, authorities released pro-al-Sadr Shiite cleric Moayed al-Khazraji, al-Sadr aides said. Al-Khazraji was arrested in October 2003 after U.S. officials said weapons were found in his mosque. The arrest triggered several days of protests and small clashes between his followers and U.S. troops.

Allawi said Wednesday a committee was being formed to discuss what he termed an "initiative" to end the conflict. Kareem al-Bakhatti, a pro-al-Sadr tribal elder, said the framework agreement calls for al-Sadr's militiamen to turn in weapons in exchange for cash payments and immunity from prosecution for most of them.

Police would take over security responsibilities in Sadr City and American forces would enter the district only with the approval of Iraqi authorities, he said.

Some al-Sadr aides expressed reservations about some of the conditions, and the fiery cleric, whose Mahdi Army launched bloody uprisings in April and August, has frequently zigzagged in negotiations. A senior al-Sadr follower, speaking on condition of anonymity, said his side rejected the proposal because it did not include a halt to arrests, the release of prisoners or an end to house raids.

The Iraqi government is eager to pacify his movement and end the major source of militancy among the majority Shiite community as the country struggles against the increasing Sunni Muslim insurgency.