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5 U.S. Marines killed in roadside bomb attack in western Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) A roadside bomb killed five U.S. Marines during combat operations in western Iraq, and the bodies of 21 Iraqis were found scattered in separate locations near a town close to the Syrian border considered an insurgent hotbed, officials and witnesses said Friday.

The Marines were killed Thursday while conducting combat operations near the town of Haqlaniyah, 90 miles north of Baghdad, in volatile Anbar province, the military said in a statement.

A U.S. soldier died Thursday of non-combat injuries near Tuz Khormato, about 130 miles north of Baghdad, the military said.

At least 1,689 U.S. military members have died since the Iraq war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Five other U.S. soldiers were wounded Thursday when a suicide car bomber attacked their convoy between Beiji and Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, but none of the injuries was life-threatening, the military said.

Separately, seven U.S. soldiers were wounded when a suicide car bomber attacked their vehicle patrol in the northern city of Mosul on Friday, spokesman Sgt. John Franzen said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military said it has launched a criminal inquiry into the killings of two Army officers at a base in Tikrit.

Capt. Phillip T. Esposito and 1st Lt. Louis E. Allen were killed Tuesday evening in what the military first believed was an ''indirect fire'' attack on Forward Operating Base Danger, a military statement said. An indirect fire attack involves enemy artillery or mortar rounds from a location some distance away.

''Upon further examination of the scene by explosive ordnance personnel, it was determined the blast pattern was inconsistent with a mortar attack,'' the statement added without elaborating.

Esposito and Allen were assigned to the 42nd Infantry Division, New York Army National Guard.

Twelve of the dead Iraqis found in Anbar province had their hands tied behind their backs and were wearing civilian clothes, witnesses said. They were found near a small hamlet called Jabab, about 19 miles east of Qaim, according to witnesses, including an Associated Press reporter and a crew from Associated Press Television News.

It was unclear when they were killed.

Another nine bodies were found near Qaim outside the village of Fosfat, also in civilian clothes and with civilian ID cards.

It was unclear if the bodies had any relation to a group of about 20 Iraqi soldiers missing from the Qaim area since late Tuesday.

Qaim, an insurgent hotbed 200 miles west of Baghdad, has been the scene of many U.S. and Iraqi military operations. U.S. Marines carried out two major operation in the area last month in which 11 Marines were killed.

Al-Qaida in Iraq, the terror group led by Jordanian-born Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, claimed in an Internet posting that it had abducted 36 Iraqi soldiers in western Iraq on Wednesday. The posting, on a Web site known to carry militant statements, could not be independently verified.

''A group of the infidel guards was arrested and investigated Wednesday,'' it said.

The group added that the men confessed their crimes ''against Sunnis and their loyalty to crusaders.'' To release them, it gave the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari a day to set free ''Muslim women'' held in Iraqi prisons. It did not elaborate.

Capt. Ahmed Hamid said the soldiers disappeared Tuesday after leaving an Iraqi army base in two minibuses from Akashat, a remote village near the Syrian border about 70 miles southwest of Qaim.

Hamid, contacted by telephone at an Iraqi military base in Qaim, said the soldiers were wearing civilian clothes and traveling to Baghdad for a vacation.

A car bomb in a working-class district of northwestern Baghdad killed four men Friday and injured another nine as they sat outside a takeaway restaurant, police said.

The four were waiting outside the eatery to pick up falafel sandwiches, a popular Arab staple made with fried chickpeas, police Lt. Majid Zeki said.

In southern Basra, gunmen killed the dean of the city's police academy, Col. Karim al-Daraji, police said.

The European Commission, meanwhile, said Friday it plans to have a delegation in Baghdad within the next few months, re-establishing a permanent mission for the first time since before the 2003 Iraq war.

Briefing reporters after returning from the EU's first high-level visit to Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said the mission will be small but would grow as the security situation permits.

''The security situation is difficult, and that's also the reason why we haven't opened a mission yet,'' she said. ''But we need a delegation there, with all the possible care given to security.''

The EU wanted to appoint a charge d'affaires who could engage in a political dialogue with government authorities, she said. The EU wants the delegation located in the Green Zone, the security enclave in the center of Baghdad that also houses the U.S. Embassy.

The EU delegation's one-day visit to Baghdad on Thursday was to prepare for a major donors' conference in Brussels, Belgium, later this month.

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