Death toll rises to 9 in Iraq tanker explosion


BAGHDAD, Iraq - Authorities raised to nine yesterday the death toll from the explosion of a fuel tanker detonated Christmas Eve in western Baghdad, while violence elsewhere claimed at least five and perhaps as many as 10 Iraqi lives.

In the western city of Ramadi, U.S. Marines reported the arrest of two men alleged to be key leaders of a militant group affiliated with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The men were arrested Dec. 8 and 12, the military said in a statement that alleged their group was behind fatal attacks on police, government officials, business leaders and civilians in Ramadi and surrounding Al Anbar province. The statement did not explain why the arrests were not reported until yesterday.

The group "kidnapped and executed 11 Iraqi National Guardsmen, detonated improvised explosive devices and car bombs resulting in the death or injury of dozens of Ramadi citizens, and smuggled foreign terrorists into the country to destabilize the region," the military said.

The violence yesterday stretched from Mosul in the north to Najaf in the south.

In Mosul, assassins killed an Iraqi interpreter, who was working for the U.S. military, and his wife. In Baghdad, a professor at Baghdad University's medical school was fatally shot in the head as he drove along Haifa Street, a road notorious for guerrilla attacks. And near Najaf, a roadside bomb killed three Iraqis and wounded two others, hospital officials said.

Agence France-Presse also reported that five Iraqis were killed and another five wounded by a roadside bomb near Samarra.

The Friday night tanker explosion was executed by a suicide bomber who apparently tried to drive the vehicle into an embassy compound in the Mansour neighborhood but was deterred by concrete barricades.

"My house was destroyed," Ahmed Mushraq told AFP. "Five of my security guards were pulled out dead, and two others are still buried under the ruins."

The attacks started Friday night soon after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ended a short surprise trip to Iraq.

The reception for Rumsfeld was friendly, and he appeared at ease as he spent more time than usual mingling with soldiers, the Associated Press reported. The defense secretary, who faced tough questioning this month from troops in Kuwait about equipment shortages, told a Marine on this trip that President Bush would request supplemental spending from Congress to pay for equipment. He promised to "meet the needs of the ground forces."

Bush is expected to submit a spending bill, which would also include foreign aid funds, in February. It is expected to total $75 billion to $80 billion, according to two Republican congressmen, Jim Kolbe of Arizona and Charles H. Taylor of North Carolina, who were in Baghdad during a tour of Iraq. That would make it the largest such funding request in history, they said.

In a message from the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland, Bush thanked American soldiers.

"In Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, these skilled and courageous Americans are fighting the enemies of freedom and protecting our country from danger," Bush said in his weekly radio address.

Rumsfeld's visit to Fallujah came a day after heavy fighting in the city killed three Marines. In a rare admission of heavy casualties, a posting on an Islamic Web site said 24 guerrilla fighters died in the clashes Thursday. All but five were from other Arab nations, the Web site said.

An Iraqi army lieutenant colonel whose battalion pulled out of Fallujah a few days ago estimated that fewer than 100 insurgent fighters were still hiding in Fallujah and waging occasional attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces. Many of them are foreigners, he said.

"There are some individuals still hiding in residences," said the officer, who identified himself only as Yasser. "The residents and the clerics and all the people of Fallujah, they agree that the foreign fighters and those who describe themselves as holy warriors were not accepted in Fallujah.

"They were fed by money from outside Iraq," the officer said in an interview. "They have their own interests. That is why now in Fallujah and Ramadi the people are starting to inform Iraqi and U.S. forces about these foreign fighters."

The U.S. military said 1,400 residents had returned to their homes in Fallujah by the end of Friday.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Killed in Iraq

As of yesterday, at least 1,323 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations. Since May 1, 2003, when President Bush declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended, 1,185 U.S. soldiers have died.

Latest identifications

Army 1st Lt. Christopher W. Barnett, 32, Baton Rouge, La.; died Thursday in Baghdad, Iraq, when an explosive detonated near his vehicle; assigned to the National Guard's 1st Battalion, 156th Armor Regiment, 256th Brigade Combat Team, Shreveport, La.

Associated Press

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