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69 reported dead in Iraq attacks

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BAQOUBA, Iraq (AP) — Insurgents launched coordinated attacks against police and government buildings across Iraq on Thursday, less than a week before the handover of sovereignty. The strikes killed 69 people, including three American soldiers, and wounded more than 270 people, Iraqi and U.S. officials said.

Most of the casualties were in Mosul, where 44 people were killed and 216 were injured in attacks that included a string of car bombs. Clashes also occurred in Baqouba, Ramadi, Baghdad and other areas.

The extent of the attacks was a clear sign of just how powerful the insurgency in Iraq remains and could be the start of a new push to torpedo Wednesday's transfer of sovereignty to an interim transitional government.

Iraqi police — entrusted to take a larger role in security after the handover of power — appeared outgunned and unable to hold positions in most of the cities under fire. American troops raced to offer support, using aircraft, tanks and helicopters to repel the guerrillas.

The military wing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's group, the Tawhid and Jihad movement, claimed responsibility for Thursday's attacks in a statement on an Islamic Web site.

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said the attacks were meant "to foil the democratic process," but he said the situation was under control.

President Bush, who is appealing to NATO to help quell the escalating violence, updated members of Congress about the situation in Iraq during an hour-long meeting at the White House.

In Baghdad, the Health Ministry said at least 66 people were killed and 268 injured nationwide — excluding U.S. casualties. In addition to the three dead, at least 12 American soldiers were wounded.

Some of the heaviest fighting was reported in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, where two American soldiers were killed and seven were wounded, the U.S. 1st Infantry Division said. Attackers also targeted police stations in Ramadi, Mahaweel and the northern city of Mosul, where car bombs rocked the Iraqi Police Academy, two police stations and the al-Jumhuri hospital.

Khalid Mohammed, an official at the hospital, said dozens of injured were brought there. At least 50 people died and 170 were wounded there, he said. A U.S. soldier also was killed and three were wounded in Mosul.

Mosul's governor imposed a 9 p.m.-6 a.m. curfew, and the city television station urged people to stay home for the "general good."

In other attacks, four Iraqi soldiers were killed in an explosion near a checkpoint manned by Iraqi and American soldiers in the southern Baghdad district of Dora. Three U.S. soldiers tended to what appeared to be a wounded American soldier on the road. The soldier's helmet lay nearby. Black smoke and flames shot up from a burning pickup truck.

Attackers also set off an explosion as a military convoy passed in Baghdad, wounding one soldier.

Also in Baghdad, insurgents attacked four Iraqi police stations using mortars, hand grenades and AK-47s on Wednesday and Thursday. Police fought back and defended the stations with minimal assistance from coalition forces, a U.S. statement said.

U.S. aircraft dropped three 500-pound bombs on an insurgent position near the city soccer stadium in Baqouba, said Maj. Neal E. O'Brien, a U.S. 1st Infantry Division spokesman. Insurgents roamed the city with rocket launchers and automatic weapons, seized two police stations and destroyed the home of the provincial police chief, O'Brien said.

Doctors struggled to deal with a steady stream of wounded as civilian cars and pickup trucks carrying wounded raced to the door of the main hospital's emergency ward. Corridors were spattered with blood.

"May God destroy America and all those who cooperate with it!" one man screamed in the corridor.

Another man carried the body of a young man shot in the back of the head and cried, "Oh God! Abbas is dead!"

The city, which has a mix of Sunni and Shiite Muslims, was almost deserted by late morning. U.S. gunships flew low over the city, some swooping down on suspected rebel hideouts in palm groves.

Some motorists flew white flags from atop their cars to ensure their safety. U.S. tanks, some firing their machine guns, moved into the city center by the afternoon.

Police were not seen on the streets, but government buildings were heavily guarded.

U.S. officials had predicted a surge in attacks trying to derail Wednesday's transfer of sovereignty, which marks the formal end of the American-run occupation.

"Coalition forces feel confident with the situation," said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, coalition deputy operations chief.

Explosions and shelling shook Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, as armed men ran through the streets, witnesses said. Residents said U.S. forces were shelling from positions outside the city and helicopters were in the skies, but the U.S. military could not immediately be reached for comment.

One Marine helicopter made an emergency landing, but no one was wounded.

U.S. forces manning a checkpoint opened fire on a local government convoy that included Fallujah's mayor and police chief, who were trying to meet the Americans to discuss the violence, an Iraqi police lieutenant said on condition of anonymity. The convoy turned back, and no injuries were reported.

A motorist who drove through Fallujah on Thursday morning said Iraqi police and insurgents were cooperating, chatting amicably along the streets, and seemed to be working together.

U.S. forces launched two airstrikes on Fallujah in recent days against what they said were safehouses of al-Zarqawi, whose group also claimed responsibility for beheading American hostage Nicholas Berg and South Korean hostage Kim Sun-il.

On Tuesday, an audiotape posted on an Islamic Web site attributed to al-Zarqawi threatened to assassinate Allawi.

U.S. Marines besieged Fallujah for three weeks in April after four American civilian contractors working for the Blackwater USA security company were ambushed and killed, their bodies mutilated and hung from a Euphrates river bridge.

The city has been relatively calm since Marines announced a deal to end the siege that created the Fallujah Brigade, commanded by officers from Saddam Hussein's army.

Though the Fallujah Brigade patrols the city, hard-line clerics and fighters who held off the Marines still control the town.

In other attacks on security forces, insurgents wearing black and using masks fired rocket-propelled grenades to attack two police stations in the insurgent stronghold of Ramadi 60 miles west of Baghdad, police said.

1st Lt. Ahmed Sami said a police station was destroyed in the initial blast. Seven people were killed and 13 were wounded, hospital officials said.

Another group attacked the Farook police station in Ramadi, also with RPGs, Sami said. In a third assault, insurgents attacked a Ramadi government building, destroying several police cars.

And in Mahaweel, a bomb exploded outside the police station, killing one officer and wounding six in the town 40 miles from Baghdad.