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4 US soldiers die as sectarian violence surges in Iraq

BAGHDAD -- Sectarian killings have surged in parts of Baghdad not yet included in a security offensive, the US military said yesterday, while bombings and other insurgent attacks killed four American soldiers and wounded 25 in the capital region.

Police reported finding 20 bodies dumped on streets, many of them victims of reprisal killings in the escalating conflict between Shi'ite and Sunni Arabs. Six people died when a car bomb exploded at a soccer field in Fallujah, raising the death toll across Iraq to at least 28.

One of the few positive developments for the US-led coalition and the national unity government was the reported killing of a senior member of Al Qaeda in Iraq and the capture of another.

The worst violence in Baghdad came at midday, when a suicide car bomber attacked US troops on the western outskirts of the city, killing two Americans and wounding 25, the US command said. It said six of the wounded had returned to duty and 15 were not seriously injured.

Two more US soldiers were killed in the Baghdad area, one when his patrol was hit by small-arms fire and the other when a roadside bomb exploded.

The command also announced the killing of a soldier Wednesday near the northern city of Mosul, raising to at least 2,676 the number of US military personnel killed since the war began, according to an Associated Press count.

Violence has intensified over the past two days, with more than 140 people killed in attacks or found dead after their bodies were dumped in the streets of Baghdad.

``There was a spike in violence in Baghdad over the past 24 hours from murder-executions," said Major General William B. Caldwell, the US command's spokesman. ``Most of those are associated with sectarian violence -- not all necessarily, but a large portion."

He said the violence had intensified in areas that have not been reached by Operation Together Forward, a security campaign launched Aug. 7 with 12,000 US and Iraqi soldiers.

``The terrorists and death squads are clearly targeting civilians outside of the focus areas," Caldwell said.

In areas that have been part of the operation, US and Iraqi forces have cleared more than 52,000 buildings, found 32 weapons caches, detained 91 people, and seized more than 1,200 weapons, Caldwell said.

``Overall, as part of the Baghdad security plan, we have seen a sustained reduction of level in the violence of attacks and murders in the focus areas," he asserted.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that ``there is a lot of progress being made" to stabilize the Baghdad area and toward the US goal of turning over security in much of the country to Iraqi forces by the end of the year.

As for the continuing bloodshed, McCormack said, ``Al Qaeda clearly has an interest in fomenting sectarian violence in Iraq."

Iraq's Interior Ministry reported that Abu Jaafar al-Liby, whom it described as the second or third most important figure in Al Qaeda in Iraq, was killed by police earlier this week.

Four other insurgents were killed and two were arrested in the raid, a ministry spokesman, Brigadier Abdul-Karim Khalaf, told The Associated Press.

Liby was in charge of the Baghdad sector of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Khalaf said.

He said two letters were found on Liby's body -- one addressed to Osama bin Laden and the other to Abu Ayyoub al-Masri, who is thought to be the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq . Both letters pledged loyalty and promised more attacks, Khalaf said.

Caldwell said US forces also had captured a senior Al Qaeda figure and personal associate of the group's new leader. He was arrested along with 70 others Tuesday in a series of 12 raids, the US spokesman said.

The man, who was not identified, led assassination, kidnapping, and bomb-making cells in Baghdad, Caldwell said, and played a key role in Al Qaeda's activities in Fallujah before an offensive there by US troops in November 2004.

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