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US expands attacks against insurgents in north

Violence leaves at least 61 dead elsewhere in Iraq

BAGHDAD -- US forces widened their operations against insurgents in northern Iraq yesterday, launching an attack on the Euphrates River stronghold of Haditha only days after evicting militants from Tal Afar. Residents also reported US airstrikes in the same region near Qaim.

The Americans called in bombing raids in Haditha, 140 miles northwest of the capital. They captured one militant with ties to Al Qaeda in Iraq and killed four others.

In the volatile city of Qaim, about 80 miles northwest of Haditha, residents said clashes broke out between insurgents and coalition forces. The US military did not confirm the airstrike.

Farther south, a string of attacks killed at least 61 people:

A car bomb exploded near a group of laborers who had gathered to look for work today in Baghdad, killing at least 40 people, police said. The blast in the mostly Shi'ite district of Kathimiya also wounded 100 people.

Gunmen dragged 17 people out of their homes in Taji, just north of Baghdad, and killed them early today, said police, who released no other details. Sectarian killings have raised fears of civil war in Iraq.

A roadside bomb killed four people near Basra -- an attack that was a twin to a deadly bombing in the area last week. Iraqi police said the dead were four US contract workers, but US officials were unable to confirm the nationalities of the victims. Last Wednesday, a roadside bomb near Basra hit a passing convoy of US diplomatic security guards, killing four Americans.

President Jalal Talabani, meanwhile, said in Washington that Iraq would not set a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops, declaring at a news conference with President Bush that the US force still was needed. The Bush administration is under increasing pressure at home to set a date to begin pulling out the 140,000 US troops.

''We will set no timetable for withdrawal. A timetable will help the terrorists," Talabani said. He said he hoped Iraqi security forces could take responsibility for the country by the end of 2006.

Bush pledged to stand by Iraq despite ''acts of staggering brutality" aimed at destabilizing the country.

A US Army commander said yesterday that extremist fighters battling for control of Tal Afar in northern Iraq had committed atrocities against civilians, including beheadings, torture, and the booby-trapping of a murdered child's body.

''The enemy here did just the most horrible things you can imagine -- in one case murdering a child, placing a booby trap within the child's body, and waiting for the parent to come recover the body of their child and exploding it to kill the parents; beheadings and so forth," Colonel H.R. McMaster, commander of the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment, said in an interview from Tal Afar with reporters at the Pentagon.

McMaster said Tal Afar is not yet under the control of the 5,000 Iraqi government forces and 3,500 to 3,800 US troops that have been fighting together there for the past two weeks. Tal Afar lies about 50 miles from the Syrian border.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, also in Washington, said Syria was playing a ''dangerous game" in allowing insurgents to penetrate Iraq from Syrian territory.

''Don't think you can benefit from our difficulties. It may be for the short term, but for the long term it might backfire on you," he warned Iraq's neighbor to the west.

Syrian officials say they are doing all they can and deny they offer sanctuary to insurgents.

During Sunday's operation in Tal Afar, Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari closed the closest Syrian border crossing. Iraqi officials say most of the insurgents they flushed out of the city were foreigners who entered the country from Syria.

After the raid yesterday on Haditha, Associated Press Television News videotape showed at least three houses that residents said were demolished in the US airstrike. The US military said American jets destroyed a vehicle used by one of the insurgents. Haditha is one of a series of towns in the Euphrates River valley controlled by militants.

US forces have been conducting random raids and airstrikes in the region that target insurgent safe houses and weapons caches.

In the Shi'ite holy city of Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, police banned trucks from entering the city yesterday and said they would prohibit cars from entering beginning tomorrow. The move was a precaution against bomb attacks on 3 million pilgrims expected for a key religious festival early next week.

The stringent security measures in Karbala reflect fears that birthday celebrations for Imam al-Mahdi al-Muntadhar, a ninth-century religious leader, could be marred by attacks by Sunni Arab insurgents, many of whom view Shi'ites as heretics.

Insurgent attacks on similar celebrations have left hundreds dead in the past two years, prompting authorities to impose increasingly restrictive measures.

As the offensive wound down in Tal Afar, 260 miles northwest of Baghdad, American commanders said US and Iraqi forces captured more than 400 suspected militants in the operation.

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