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Day's violence showcase for ethnic tensions

Dozens killed ahead of vote

BAGHDAD -- Insurgents plowed a car bomb into a bus carrying Kurdish militiamen in northern Iraq yesterday, while Sunni and Shi'ite militias fought a pitched battle south of Baghdad. The day's violence, which killed dozens, underscored the continuing rise in ethnic and sectarian tensions as Iraq heads toward nationwide elections in January.

Across the country, other insurgent attacks claimed the lives of US soldiers and allied Iraqi forces. Two American troops were killed in roadside bombings in the capital and near the central Iraqi city of Baqubah, and two other US soldiers died in a suicide bombing of their post near the Jordanian border on Friday, the military said.

In Baghdad, insurgents detonated two car bombs simultaneously at an Iraqi police station near the fortified headquarters of the US Embassy and the interim Iraqi government, killing at least three Iraqi policemen and wounding dozens of others.

The attacks illustrated both the geographical reach and diverse goals of the country's tenacious insurgency. For more than a year, guerrillas have targeted US troops and Iraqi security forces, while other attacks have seemed aimed at exacerbating ethnic and sectarian strife to undermine the US-led occupation.

Both the US military and the insurgents see the elections, scheduled for Jan. 30, as a turning point. The Americans hope the elections will create a government with a measure of legitimacy and hasten a withdrawal of US troops, whose numbers are set to grow from 138,000 to 150,000 by mid-January. The guerrillas aim to disrupt the vote, whose success would probably be seen as a victory for the US project in Iraq.

Speaking to reporters in Bahrain, Army General John P. Abizaid, the US commander for the Mideast, acknowledged that Iraqi forces alone were not capable of providing security during the elections.

''It had been our hope that we would be able to have a combination of increases that mainly were Iraqi troops' increases," Abizaid said. ''And while the Iraqi troops are larger in number than they used to be, those forces have to be seasoned more, trained more. So, it's necessary to bring more American forces."

In one of the bloodiest attacks yesterday, a driver smashed a car packed with explosives into a Toyota minibus carrying Kurdish militiamen into Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city and home to a mixed Kurdish and Sunni Arab population. Hospital officials said at least 18 Kurds on the bus were killed in the 4 p.m. bombing.

Since November, fighting has surged in Mosul. Last month, insurgents overran police stations and attacked Kurdish party offices. Almost all of Mosul's 5,000-man police force fled, and Kurds have accounted for a substantial portion of the federal troops brought in to restore order.

In fighting Friday, insurgents again attacked four police stations before they were driven off, the military said. Elsewhere in the city, a force of perhaps 70 guerrillas ambushed a US military patrol with roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades, and small-arms fire. US and Iraqi forces launched a counterattack, the military said, killing more than two dozen fighters.

Fighting also erupted yesterday in Latifiyah, a town 25 miles south of Baghdad where insurgent activity has increased. The clashes came in two rounds, one of which appeared to be the most openly sectarian fighting since the US-led invasion in March 2003.

The first clash pitted a newly formed Shi'ite Muslim militia against a group of Sunni Muslim extremists, who had been accused of killing Shi'ites on the road to the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf.

Each group brought rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles to the fight, which began after 9 a.m. When the smoke cleared, the Sunni group said it had killed 16 members of the attacking Brigades of Fury, the Shi'ite militia formed in the southern city of Basra last month to avenge the deaths of Shi'ites on the pilgrimage route, which runs through Latifiyah.

The Islamic Army in Iraq, the Sunni group, lost seven men, according to Thaer Ahmed, 28, one of its fighters. Ahmed denied the Islamic Army had targeted Shi'ite pilgrims, asserting that was a rumor fomented by Iraq's interim government and US forces to provoke a confrontation between the insurgents and the Shi'ite majority.

''We didn't want to fight them, because we did not want to lose the people supporting us in the south, but we had to," Ahmed said. ''We defended ourselves." The second front, he added, will be ''more difficult, because these are Iraqis, and we don't know their intentions by looking at them."

After watching the fighting from his cigarette shop, Hussein Salem complained that US armored units had waited just out of range, about a mile away, while sectarian fighting raged.

''The Americans are feeling good because the Iraqis are fighting Iraqis," said Salem, 52. ''If the situation remains like this, the people will start to leave, and it will be like Fallujah. Two tanks could stop this."

At 10:30, however, the American column approached: 10 armored vehicles and 10 Humvees. Islamic Army guerrillas fired grenades, and the US armor responded with heavy fire. In the ensuing 40 minutes of battle, another 19 Sunni fighters were killed, including two Kuwaitis and a Jordanian, said Ahmed, who collected the bodies in a pickup truck.

Witnesses said five Iraqi police officers were also killed, as was a woman hit by stray fire. Witnesses also reported several US wounded and armored vehicles on fire. The military had no immediate comment, a spokeswoman said.

The attack in Baghdad was the second in two days on Iraqi police in the capital, a dramatic show of the insurgents' ability to strike at the heart of the country when they choose. A day earlier, guerrillas overran a police station in southern Baghdad, killing 16 police officers, freeing dozens of prisoners and emptying a police arsenal.

The two car bombs detonated about 9:30 a.m., the US military said. The sound of the blasts, which sent up a column of black smoke, reverberated across the capital, rattling windows on both sides of the Tigris River dividing Baghdad.

''It was a nightmare," said Thamer Halaib, 25, a guard at a nearby parking lot. ''I had never heard anything like it."

One bomb was carried in a green Chevrolet, witnesses said. Police said they fired on it as it hurtled past barricades, then detonated, killing the driver. Crowds ran through streets cloaked in debris and black smoke, some of them screaming for help. Fearing an insurgent assault, police fired their weapons for a half-hour after the explosions, witnesses said.

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