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US forces kill 46 in Iraq battle

Fighting follows convoy ambush; 2 S. Koreans die in later clash

BAGHDAD -- American forces killed 46 Iraqis yesterday when two US military convoys came under attack by a large group of Saddam Hussein loyalists, the US military said. Five US soldiers and a civilian were wounded in the battle in Samarra, about 60 miles north of Baghdad. It appears to have been the largest engagement since the end of major combat in Iraq.

 

A short time later, two South Korean electrical technicians were killed by insurgents on the highway from Samarra to Tikrit, US military sources and South Korea's Foreign Ministry said, in what US officials termed yet another attempt to intimidate US allies helping to rebuild Iraq.

The US military told reporters in Tikrit that the afternoon attack in Samarra was a highly synchronized military operation in which insurgents opened fire from opposite ends of the city as the US vehicles drove through. Having laid roadside bombs, the attackers opened fire with automatic rifles, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades, shooting from alleys and rooftops.

US armored forces fired back with 120mm tank shells and 25mm cannon fire, according to the Fourth Infantry Division, which is based nearby in Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.

About 18 Iraqis were wounded in the battle and eight were captured. When the fighting had ended, the US military said, US forces surveying the dead found that many Iraqis were dressed in military uniforms believed to belong to Hussein's most zealous fighters, the Fedayeen Saddam.

"We have been very aggressive in our convoy operations to ensure the maximum force protection is with each convoy," Lieutenant Colonel William MacDonald, a division spokesman, told the Associated Press last night. "But it does send a clear message that if you attempt to attack one of our convoys, we're going to use our firepower to stop that attack."

MacDonald said none of the wounded Americans suffered life-threatening injuries.

Samarra sits in the heart of the so-called Sunni Triangle, where opposition to US operations in Iraq has been fierce. The main road linking Baghdad and Tikrit runs through Samarra, and has been the site of regular ambushes on trucks. Convoys are protected by armored vehicles that travel in front, in back, and among the vehicles.

The deaths of the two South Korean technicians, who were in Iraq to help with reconstruction, capped a violent weekend in which fighters seeking to oust the US military had turned their Kalashnikov assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades mainly on non-American coalition members, both military and civilian. Seven Spanish military intelligence operatives and two Japanese diplomats were killed on Saturday.

A Colombian civilian working for a US defense contractor was also reported yesterday to have been killed in a guerrilla ambush on Saturday near the town of Balad.

The insurgents are "clearly targeting coalition members in an effort to intimidate all allies in Iraq and discourage their participation in the reconstruction of Iraq, " said Dan Senor, a spokesman for the chief US administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III. "They recognize the stakes are high. We recognize the stakes are high, too."

Said US Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt: "The enemy is shifting toward softer targets. He realizes that attacks against the [US] military will lead to his own death or capture."

Spanish and Japanese leaders vowed yesterday that the attacks would not deter them from carrying out their commitments to help in the reconstruction of Iraq. Early today, South Korea expressed similar sentiments.

The United States also reported casualties during the weekend. Military authorities said yesterday that two American soldiers were killed in a roadside ambush in western Iraq. The two soldiers, from the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment, were hit with automatic rifle fire and rockets as their heavily armed column rolled toward Husaybah, on the Syrian border.

Their deaths brought to 104 the number of coalition troops who died in Iraq in November, including 79 US troops.

Another Third Armored Cavalry Regiment soldier was wounded in the same attack, which occurred Saturday, according to the military. The regiment's main job is to guard against terrorist operatives and arms smugglers trying to enter Iraq to join an increasingly deadly guerrilla campaign against the coalition.

An insurgent fighter was killed and several captured during the intense firefight with US soldiers.

American military officials said last night, meanwhile, before news of the Samarra attack had reached Baghdad, that they have no reason to believe the attacks on US forces and their allies were centrally coordinated either by Hussein loyalists or Islamic militants.

"Our [intelligence] analysts are working night and day, but don't have conclusive evidence of a central coordination or command for these events," Kimmitt said. "This is a clever, adaptive enemy. But we are clever and adaptive, as well."

The two Japanese diplomats were shot dead Saturday on the road between Baghdad and Tikrit, after stopping in the village of Mukayshafa to buy food and drinks, according to the US military. The diplomats, who did not have a military escort, were headed to Tikrit to attend a meeting on reconstruction efforts for Iraq. Their Iraqi driver also was killed.

The assault had raised questions as to whether Japan would press ahead with a commitment to send troops to help rebuild Iraq.

"Why does this kind of thing happen? I am furious," Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said in Tokyo.The Japanese leader insisted his country will stay the course in Iraq. "Japan must not give in to terrorism," he said. "Japan will firmly carry out our responsibilities for humanitarian aid and reconstruction."

The United States wants Japan to send troops in support of coalition efforts, but opposition to the plan is deepening among Japanese, whose post-World War II constitution forbids waging war except in national defense. The Japanese troops would not play a combat role.

In Mahmudiyah, south of Baghdad, the seven Spaniards were gunned down in a ditch Saturday after their white sports utility vehicles were run off the road by assailants. Television footage from shortly after the attack showed several young men, apparently local villagers and not the assailants, kicking at the bodies and raising their fists in triumph while some of the onlookers chanted "We sacrifice our souls and blood for you, Oh Saddam!"

"All of them are Jews," 15-year-old Tareq Jassim told reporters at the scene yesterday. "All of them are occupiers."

Other youths were jumping on the charred cars while older villagers hauled off parts.

The bodies of the Spaniards were flown to Kuwait, from where Spanish Defense Minister Federico Trillo accompanied them on a flight back to Madrid. Spain was one of the stronger US supporters in the campaign to topple Hussein.

Spain, like Japan, reiterated its commitment to helping build a democratic society in Iraq.

Spanish troops will remain in Iraq as part of its fight against "fanatical terrorism," Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar said in a live broadcast. "Our freedom is threatened by all terrorists. We know that a withdrawal would be the worst route we could take."

Early today, South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun condemned the attack that killed the two engineers as "intolerable" terror, and his government said the attack would not affect plans to send troops to Iraq.

"This is an act of terror against civilians and is an intolerable, inhumane act," Roh was quoted as saying by his office during a meeting with aides.

Material from the Associated Press was used in compiling this report.

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