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Troops, Iraqis in daylong battle


ABU GHRAIB, Iraq - Guerrillas and U.S. troops battled for hours here yesterday in an intense firefight after a demonstration in support of Saddam Hussein turned violent.

And rumors of attacks this weekend roiled Baghdad.

The daylong battle in Abu Ghraib, a western suburb of Baghdad that has been a center of hostility to the U.S.-led occupation, and the anxiety in the capital underscored the deteriorating security situation here at the end of a week that began when four simultaneous car bombs killed 34 people and wounded more than 200.

In addition, a U.S. soldier was killed yesterday in an attack west of Baghdad. At least 33 U.S. soldiers died from hostile fire in October, compared with 16 in September.

The pace of attacks has increased in recent days.

The soldier, from the 82nd Airborne Division, was killed by a roadside bomb at 8:30 a.m. near Khaldiya, about 45 miles west of Baghdad, the military reported. Four other soldiers were wounded.

The death brought to 118 the number of U.S. troops killed in action since President Bush declared major combat operations over May 1.

Since the Iraq war began on March 19, 350 soldiers have died in combat or from other causes, and 2,160 more have been wounded, according to Maj. Linda Haseloff, a military spokeswoman in Tampa, Fla.

This weekend could see a surge in guerrilla attacks, according to a spokeswoman here for the U.S. military, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"There is a possibility of increased attacks," she said. "Nov. 1 and 2 are reportedly days of national resistance in Iraq. We have been briefed that there is a possibility that there might be increased attacks at least on Nov. 1."

Administration officials in Washington said fliers circulating in Baghdad and Basra urged a three-day general strike against the occupation.

An excerpt from the flier, written in Arabic and marked "Baath Party Regional Headquarters" at the top, carries the following instructions, according to a U.S. official:

"Carry out a general and comprehensive demonstration all over the nation for three days from the first daylight of Nov. 1, 2003, and in all walks of life, i.e., official and semiofficial bureaus and unions, and other means of transportation, and small and large business places, the kiosk and walking salespeople in the street, to prove to our enemy that we are a united people."

Schools, hotels and several neighborhoods have received specific threats, according to military sources and residents, and there are persistent rumors that hundreds of Islamic militants have infiltrated the capital.

Around Baghdad, Iraqi police officers set up checkpoints at major intersections to look for weapons. Private security companies, hired by the big hotels where foreign journalists and contractors are staying, sent teams of bomb-sniffing dogs to check cars parked nearby.

Further increasing tensions, some prominent Sunni Muslim clerics leading Friday prayers at local mosques railed against the U.S. occupation and the Iraqi political leaders who have been working with it. Banners calling for jihad, or holy war, against U.S. troops have been put up around many important Sunni mosques in the capital since the beginning of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, on Monday.

In Abu Ghraib, about 10 miles west of Baghdad, helicopters rattled overhead and U.S. soldiers moved M1 Abrams tanks into the area to counter Iraqi guerrillas. The hollow thump of mortar rounds from guerrillas sounded near the center of town, a market where U.S. soldiers are attacked regularly.

Some U.S. troops fired from combat vehicles while others on foot took up fighting positions in the area, soldiers said. Iraqis said there were civilian casualties, and a photographer for The New York Times saw some wounded people, but the number of casualties could not be confirmed. A military spokesman in Baghdad declined to comment on the battle.

Local residents and U.S. soldiers offered widely varying accounts of the genesis of the firefight. Residents said the violence grew out of an effort in the morning by U.S. soldiers and Iraqi police officers to clear vegetable sellers from the street. Soldiers threw a stun grenade into the crowd, injuring some Iraqis, they said.

After Friday prayers, a pro-Hussein demonstration of at least 1,000 people gathered, intensifying the confrontation, the residents said.

"People started calling, 'By blood and soul we sacrifice for you, Saddam Hussein,'" said one witness, Hamad Ali. Then the Iraqi police fired on the demonstrators, and a firefight broke out, Ali said.

But U.S. soldiers said the violence flared when someone threw a grenade at troops patrolling the market, slightly wounding two soldiers. Then the police station was hit by mortars, they said. On Sunday night, a mortar attack on that station killed at least one person and wounded two others.

In northern Iraq, U.S. troops sealed off Awja, the village where Hussein was born, and began issuing identity cards to the villagers to determine who could move in and out, according to the Associated Press.

U.S. soldiers, working before dawn, surrounded the village with razor wire and set up checkpoints at the exits, the AP reported. They ordered all adults to register for identity cards in the village, about 95 miles north of Baghdad.

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