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26 killed by truck bomb in Shi'ite village

34 wounded; 3 US troops die in other blasts

BAGHDAD -- A bomb hidden in a truck loaded with dates exploded last night in the center of a Shi'ite farming village northeast of Baghdad, killing 26 people and wounding at least 34.

Also yesterday, three US soldiers died in separate bombings in Baghdad and in northern Iraq.

The bomb in the Shi'ite village near Baqubah, about 45 miles northeast of Baghdad, exploded as villagers were heading for prayers or going outdoors to break daylong fast they observe during the holy month of Ramadan.

''It felt as if the earth was shaking underneath our feet," said Hussein Mouwaffaq, whose brother, Qahtan, was killed in the blast. ''Many people were killed and injured."

Police Lieutenant Ahmed Abdul Wahab, who gave the casualty figure, said the number of deaths could increase because several people had been critically wounded. The village is in a religiously mixed area that has been plagued by suicide attacks, roadside bombs, and assaults on police checkpoints.

Shi'ite civilians are frequent targets of Sunni extremists, including Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Al Qaeda considers Shi'ites to be heretics and US collaborators. Iraq's security services are staffed mainly by Shi'ites and Kurds.

At the hospital in Baqubah, seriously wounded victims lay on stretchers on a blood-smeared floor as doctors and nurses in bloodstained white coats scurried about. Distraught relatives held intravenous bottles beside their loved ones' beds.

On one bed a child lay motionless with a bandage covering his knee, as a man sobbed next to him. A badly burned man wiggled in agony on a stretcher.

''We ask the terrorists and the so-called mujahiddeen: The people who were killed, what did they do?" said Captain Ahmed Jassim of the Iraqi army.

In another development, two US soldiers were killed yesterday when a bomb exploded near their vehicle in southern Baghdad, the US command said. The third soldier died in a roadside bombing earlier yesterday near Beiji, 155 miles north of the capital, the military said. Four soldiers were wounded in the Beiji blast.

Their deaths raised to at least eight the number of US service members killed in Iraq since Thursday. At least 2,015 US troops have been killed since the war started in March 2003, according to a count by the Associated Press.

In his weekly radio address yesterday, President Bush said the war in Iraq has required ''great sacrifice," but that progress is being made and that the United States must remain steadfast in its acceptance of the conflict. ''The best way to honor the sacrifice of our fallen troops is to complete the mission and win the war on terror," he said.

''We will train Iraqi security forces and help a newly elected government meet the needs of the Iraqi people. In doing so, we will lay the foundation of peace for our children and grandchildren."

Support for Bush's handling of Iraq is at its lowest point, 37 percent, roughly where it has been since August, according to AP-Ipsos polls.

Elsewhere, US Marines clashed with insurgents yesterday in volatile towns and villages along the Euphrates River valley near the Syrian border. Ten militants were killed, the military said.

The US Central Command also reported that Air Force jets struck a building in the area Friday after intelligence indicated a Saudi member of Al Qaeda in Iraq, known only as Abu Mahmud, was meeting with his lieutenants.

The statement did not say whether Abu Mahmud was killed.

However, Iraqi residents said some civilians died. Associated Press Television News video from the scene showed the bodies of at least four people, including a woman. Residents used a bulldozer to clear the wreckage of homes.

Faced with a tenacious insurgency, US officials have pinned their hopes on encouraging a political process as the best way to lure militants away from the armed resistance. The key to that strategy is the Dec. 15 election, when Iraqis will choose a new parliament to serve a four-year term.

Yesterday, the country's major political blocs unveiled their top candidates for the December balloting, signaling the effective start of the election campaign. They included the religiously based Shi'ite alliance, which won the most seats in the Jan. 30 contest, a Sunni Arab faction, Kurds and a secular ticket led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

Allawi, a secular Shiite, is running along with several prominent Sunni Arabs, including Vice President Ghazi al-Yawer, parliament speaker Hajim al-Hassani and elder statesman Adnan Pachachi.

Their presence on the ticket, as well as the separate Sunni Arab bloc, has raised hopes that more Sunni Arabs, who dominate the ranks of the insurgency, will take part in the vote.

Sunnis largely boycotted the Jan. 30 election, enabling Shiites and Kurds to sweep control of the National Assembly and help to draft the new constitution.

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