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2 US soldiers killed in heavy Iraq attacks

FALLUJAH, Iraq -- Guerrilla fighters attacked a US convoy carrying ammunition here yesterday and a US patrol near the northern city of Kirkuk late Saturday.

Guerrillas claimed that at least five US soldiers were killed; US military spokesmen confirmed the deaths of two soldiers in the Kirkuk ambush, but denied that there were any casualties in Fallujah, a hotbed of support for ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein 35 miles west of Baghdad. One of the soldiers killed near Kirkuk was from Bedford, Mass., according to his parents.

Men on the streets of Fallujah who identified themselves as Fedayeen fighters said the United States has been understating casualties as the attacks on its troops steadily mount."We kill 10 and they say it was one," said a guerrilla who identified himself as a former member of Hussein's security services.

At the scene of the attack in Fallujah, in which at least two rocket-propelled grenades were fired at the convoy, thunderous explosions of ammunition and rockets sent up a huge cloud of black smoke. Flaming chunks of vehicles landed in gardens and trees bordering the highway, which was scorched for at least 100 yards and strewn with tattered scraps of military-issue clothing.

The heavy firing and thick smoke made it impossible to determine the number of casualties. Witnesses said that two to four American soldiers and three Iraqis were killed. The Reuters news agency reported that six Iraqis wounded in the clash were brought to hospitals in Fallujah.

Immediately after the explosions began, two vehicles from the convoy sped toward central Fallujah, firing automatic weapons at an Iraqi truck that fled the area. US troops withdrew from the area as crowds of cheering Iraqi civilians stoned the flaming vehicles and taunted the soldiers.

The crowds blocked a Fallujah Fire Department engine that arrived to douse the blaze, and threatened to set it on fire unless the driver pulled back. He did.

Members of the crowd fled in panic, with some men shouting, "We are Fedayeen, not terrorists," as the Americans returned.

Fallujah's mayor, Taha Bideywi Hamid, said in an interview that "all Fallujah people are angry" over the recent arrests of two local sheiks by American forces.

"They wanted to make a big demonstration today, and we stopped them," Hamid said. "The Americans said they would let [the sheiks] out in two days, but our people are too angry" to restrain themselves.

Hamid, who has a long history of opposition to Hussein, said: "The coalition forces are serving the town well. Even when something like this happens, they continue serving the town."

But public sentiment in this stronghold of Hussein supporters -- many of them former secret police, security service, and army men who are unemployed as a result of Hussein's fall -- is openly hostile to the coalition in general and American forces in particular.

Graffiti scrawled on stone walls at a major intersection declared, "Fallujah, the Graveyard of Americans," and urged residents to "Kill All Americans."

On a barren street corner a few blocks away, about 20 Fedayeen, in their early 20s to their mid-40s, waited in vain in the baking heat for day-labor work. Almost all were former government security men or military officers whose jobs were ended by the US-led occupation government.

They said they were not directly involved in organizations resisting the occupation, but readily acknowledged that they provide weapons, shelter, and other forms of support to organized resistance groups. Many said they have rocket-propelled grenade launchers and automatic weapons that they took with them and concealed when Hussein's regime fell.

"We hid them carefully, and when the time is right we use them," said a man who identified himself as a former army colonel. "Everyone has a duty to fight the Americans. They say because we worked for the old regime we have no right to pay. Why is this? Everyone under the old regime worked for the government.

"If we had work, we would go to work," he said, to a roar of approval from his comrades. They shouted in agreement again when asked whether they wanted Hussein back as ruler of Iraq and when asked whether they would stop fighting if asked by their sheiks.

Mayor Hamid said he believed most of the attacks were being launched not by locals, but by Arabs from Saudi Arabia and Yemen who entered Iraq to fight the US-led invasion and have remained. But, he said, it is easy for outside activists and extremists to get the locals' support under the current conditions. "We have many people sitting here with no pay for six or seven months," Hamid said. "If rebuilding begins and they receive salaries, there will be much less trouble."

By midafternoon, US forces had withdrawn, and hundreds of Iraqi men, some firing rifles in the air, were dancing and chanting around the burned-out hulks of the military vehicles smoldering in the middle of the highway.

A dozen mounted the charred cab of the lead vehicle, waving their arms and ululating, while the crowd chanted, "Long Live Saddam," and "In Ramadan, the attacks will increase."

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins next week.

Charles A. Radin can be reached at radin@globe.com

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