Six U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq in roadside blasts

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Six U.S. soldiers and two Iraqi civilians died in two separate roadside bomb incidents yesterday as United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced that he would dispatch a team to Iraq to study the feasibility of early elections.

In the first attack, three soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division were killed and one was critically injured as their convoy passed through Khaldiyah in the Sunni Triangle area, where the military has encountered persistent Iraqi resistance.

Witnesses said there were two explosions shortly before 1 p.m. The first hit a Humvee, and when reinforcement troops arrived, a second bomb went off.

A nurse at the Ramadi Hospital, where the Iraqi casualties were taken, confirmed that two Iraqis were dead. A cabdriver died of head injuries suffered in the blast. Hadi Abd Shehab, an agriculture official in Khaldiyah, died of a gunshot wound to the stomach. Although it was unclear who shot him, witnesses said that after the initial explosion, U.S. troops began firing indiscriminately.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said the force that responded after the first blast came under fire.

In the second incident, three U.S. soldiers were killed and three were wounded when a roadside bomb hit their convoy about 8 p.m. near the town of Iskandariyah, about 30 miles south of Baghdad.

Early today, a car bomb exploded in front of the Shaheen hotel in central Baghdad, killing at least three people and partially destroying the three-story building, police said. The police chief of the Karadah district, Kadhim Khalas, said the bomb wounded four people.

In another incident yesterday, an attack on a group of CNN journalists left two dead and one wounded.

CNN reported that translator-producer Dureid Issa Mohammed and driver Yasser Khateeb were shot and killed by unidentified assailants on a highway outside Baghdad. A camera operator was grazed in the head by a bullet.

CNN said the news team, which included correspondent Michael Holmes, was returning from an assignment in southern Iraq when its two vehicles were attacked. A security guard employed by CNN returned fire.

The continuing violence underscored the problems facing the U.N. mission, which Annan said would return to Iraq only after "we are given assurances that the practical and security arrangements are in place."

Annan pulled international staff from Iraq last year after two bombings at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, including an Aug. 19 blast that left 22 dead, among them mission chief Sergio Vieira de Mello.

Speaking in Paris yesterday, Annan said, "I have concluded that the United Nations can play a constructive role in helping break the current impasse."

In a significant about-face last week, the Bush administration asked for U.N. assistance in Iraq, but, at the same time, it hopes the U.N. delegation will back its contention that organizing elections before the planned July 1 transfer of power would be unwise. The administration claims there isn't enough time to organize such elections given the absence of voter rolls and election laws. U.S. officials favor a system of regional caucuses that would choose the new Iraqi government.

Annan was noncommittal. "I have already made it clear that in my view there is no single 'right way.' I strongly hold to the idea that the most sustainable way forward would be one that came from the Iraqis themselves," he said.

Dan Senor, spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority, said the civilian authority and its leader, L. Paul Bremer III, would cooperate with Annan's team.

"The important point is for us to do everything we can to give [Annan] the confidence that he needs that we are minimizing risks and maximizing security for the electoral team that will possibly deploy here," he said.

Leading the call for direct elections is Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, a reclusive 73-year-old Shiite cleric who has emerged as Iraq's most influential political power.

Al-Sistani argues that elections are the only guarantee that Iraq's long-repressed Shiite majority, who represent about 60 percent of the population in this nation of 24 million, will secure their fair share of the political spoils. The prospect has alarmed Iraq's Sunni minority, its traditional ruling class, as well as Kurds in the north and secular Iraqis.

The attack in Khaldiyah was the second in four days. On Saturday, a car bomb killed three U.S. soldiers and injured six near the entrance of a U.S. base.

"The overall number of attacks is going down but that has not, sadly, stopped the number of casualties from going down," said Kimmitt, the U.S. military spokesman.

He estimated 3,000 to 5,000 people were involved in the insurgency, with "the vast majority ... strictly home-grown anti-coalition elements."

"We believe based on current operations that al-Qaida is operating in Iraq," he said, echoing similar pronouncements by U.S. and Iraqi military and security officials in recent days.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Wire services contributed to this article.