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Three American soldiers die in attack on base, bomb blast

BAGHDAD -- Insurgents hit a US base in central Iraq with mortar shells, killing one American soldier and wounding two others, a US military spokesman said yesterday. Two other soldiers were killed in a separate bomb attack.

The mortars struck a base of the Army's Fourth Infantry Division near Balad, about 50 miles northwest of Baghdad on Friday night, Sergeant Robert Cargie said.

One of the shells exploded near a trailer that troops used as a bedroom, and a soldier standing in its doorway was killed. Shrapnel struck two other soldiers, who were taken to a combat support hospital, where they were in stable condition, Cargie said.

In a separate incident Friday, two US soldiers on patrol south of Baghdad were killed by a homemade bomb, a military spokesman said. Three others were injured in the explosion and evacuated to a hospital.

Overnight, the US military bombed the sparsely populated southern edge of Baghdad to root out insurgents believed to be launching mortar shells and rockets, hours after a US military helicopter was shot down west of the capital, killing one soldier.

Soon after the helicopter crashed Friday, the military said attackers posing as journalists fired assault weapons and rocket-propelled grenades at US paratroopers guarding the burning aircraft.

But there was confusion, because Reuters news agency reported that US troops fired at its team at the scene and the military later detained three.

"Our guys are still in detention, and we still haven't been informed of any specific accusations against them," said Andrew Marshall, Reuters' bureau chief in Baghdad.

Elsewhere, insurgents attacked an American tanker truck convoy, setting one ablaze.

Coalition forces raiding a Sunni Muslim mosque arrested 32 suspected non-Iraqi Arab insurgents and seized an arms cache. Hundreds of Iraqis protested outside the mosque after the raid.

In Baghdad, a military spokesman said the shelling of the Doura neighborhood was part of an offensive dubbed Operation Iron Grip. Residents said it appeared US fire was targeting fields in the neighborhood.

Bordered by date palm farms, the sparsely populated area once was home to a number of former officials in Saddam Hussein's government and is now the site of a US military base.

Operations like Iron Grip send "a very clear message to anybody who thinks that they can run around Baghdad without worrying about the consequences of firing [rocket-propelled grenades], firing mortars," US Army Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt told reporters Friday.

"There is a capability in the air that can quickly respond against anybody who would want to harm Iraqi citizens or coalition forces."

He said troops from the 82nd Airborne Division were "fairly convinced that it was enemy fire" that brought down the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopter near Fallujah, a flash point in the insurgency.

As paratroopers from the 82d surrounded the crash site, five men "wearing black press jackets with `press' clearly written in English" fired on them, Kimmitt said. He said it was the first time he had heard of assailants in Iraq posing as journalists.

The Reuters team was led by Iraqi cameraman Salem Uraiby, who was filming from a checkpoint using a camera on a tripod and was wearing a flak jacket clearly marked "press," the agency said.

"We were fired on, and we drove away at high speed," driver Alaa Noury said. He said a second car driven by another Iraqi journalist had been fired upon in the same incident.

One of the cars remained in Fallujah, Reuters said.

Kimmitt said attackers in two cars fled the scene and that soldiers doing a sweep through the town, with helicopters circling overhead, tracked down one of the cars and arrested four "enemy personnel."

Rebels previously have shot down US helicopters elsewhere in the so-called Sunni Triangle, the heartland of Hussein's support and a center of resistance to the US-led occupation.

In the deadliest single attack on US forces since the Iraq invasion began in March, 17 soldiers were killed Nov. 15, when two Black Hawk helicopters collided above Mosul in what the military called a probable grenade attack.

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