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Suicide bomber hits Iraqi checkpoint, killing 4 US soldiers

Five in elite unit accused of abuse

BAGHDAD -- A suicide bomber blew up his vehicle at a checkpoint south of Baghdad and killed four American soldiers yesterday, the military said. The US command also announced that five soldiers from an elite unit were charged with kicking and punching Iraqi detainees.

The suicide attack occurred as US and Iraqi troops battled Al Qaeda-led militants for a third day in Husaybah, a town on the Syrian border that the military describes as a major entry point for foreign fighters. One Marine has died there, the US command said yesterday.

Al Qaeda in Iraq warned the government to halt the offensive in Husaybah within 24 hours or see ''the earth . . . shake beneath their feet."

''Let them know that the price will be very heavy," said an Internet statement purportedly issued by the group, which has been blamed for some of Iraq's worst terrorist bombings. The warning's authenticity could not be confirmed.

The Pentagon announced a troop rotation for Iraq that will number at least 92,000 soldiers through 2008, although officials said it probably will be considerably larger.

Names of the four soldiers who died in the suicide attack were not released, but the US command said they were assigned to the Army's Task Force Baghdad. No further details were released. Earlier yesterday, the military said a US soldier died Sunday in a roadside bombing near Tikrit.

The deaths brought to at least 2,051 the number of US military personnel who have died since the Iraq war started in 2003, according to an Associated Press count. At least 24 have died this month -- most of them because of roadside bombings.

The US military said five soldiers from the Army's 75th Ranger Regiment were charged Saturday with assault, maltreatment, and dereliction of duty during a Sept. 7 incident ''in which three detainees were allegedly punched and kicked while awaiting movement to a detention facility." All five were reassigned to administrative duties, the statement said.

The Army said in a Pentagon statement that the alleged incident occurred in Baghdad and that the detainees, all adult males, suffered bruises ''caused by striking with a closed and open hand, kicking, and hitting with an object described as a broomstick."

Allegations of prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad gained international notoriety in 2004. Nine Army reservists were convicted in that scandal.

The announcement of abuse charges came as President Bush vigorously defended US interrogation practices in the war on terrorism and lobbied against a congressional drive to outlaw torture.

The New York Times reported today that last week, the Pentagon quietly approved new guidelines for prisoner interrogations aimed at making sure that those questioning prisoners have been trained and that any abuses are reported.

The newly announced troop rotation is smaller than the one currently in Iraq, but a Pentagon spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Barry Venable, said no decisions have been made to reduce troop levels next year.

The United States has maintained a roughly 138,000-strong troop level in Iraq throughout the year, expanding it to 160,000 this fall because of the Oct. 15 Iraqi constitutional referendum and Dec. 15 election.

Yesterday's announcement did not include any Marine Corps units, although they apparently will be added later. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said conditions in Iraq in coming months would determine any changes in US force levels.

In a statement on the Husaybah fighting, the Marines said American and Iraqi troops were trying to flush out insurgents holed up in mosques, schools, and other public buildings but did not say how much of the town had been secured.

The statement said at least 36 insurgents had been killed since the assault began Saturday in the town, about 200 miles northwest of Baghdad. A Marine commander gave the same figure Sunday night.

''We are meeting quite a bit of resistance here in Husaybah but the offensive is going well," Marine Captain Conlon Carabine told CNN yesterday. ''Our strategy is basically to kill the insurgents when we come across them."

Carabine said US and Iraqi troops would establish a long-term presence in the town after the operation is completed.

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