Insurgents hit fuel-supply convoy in Iraq
Insurgents hit an American fuel-supply convoy Wednesday in the Iraqi capital, witnesses said, leaving a tanker truck engulfed in flames that sent smoke rising high over the city as the second high-level American official visited in as many days.
Twin blasts targeted the convoy of two U.S. Humvees and a fuel tanker as it made its way through an eastern Baghdad neighborhood, witnesses at the scene said, as the truck burned violently and sent up a large plume of black smoke visible across Baghdad.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's top deputy, Robert Zoellick, arrived in the war-battered capital Wednesday on a one-day visit following a trip to Iraq by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Tuesday.
Zoellick's trip, like Rumsfeld's, had been kept secret for security reasons until his entourage landed in Baghdad.
Although he acknowledged the political and economic challenges facing Iraq, Zoellick said "the pieces are coming together" even though the country still is "suffering pangs of violence."
"One shouldn't underestimate how quickly and effectively Iraqi leaders have taken to democratic politics," Zoellick said.
On Tuesday, U.S. troops battled arms smugglers and fighters near the Iraqi town of Qaim along the Syrian border, killing an unknown number of foreign insurgents, the U.S. military said. Local hospital officials reported at least nine people killed in clashes in the same area and said they believed the dead were civilians.
Insurgents opened fire when the U.S. troops began their raid on the smuggling ring Tuesday, and several militants, including at least one suicide bomber, were killed, the U.S. military said. No Americans were injured, it said.
Residents reported violent clashes before dawn Tuesday in and around Qaim, although it was unclear if the violence was related to the raid.
It was impossible to verify the claims.
Without providing details, the group al-Qaida in Iraq, led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, claimed responsibility for the Qaim clashes. The claim, posted on the Internet, could not be verified.
Many residents stayed in on Tuesday and some families fled their homes in two southwestern neighborhoods and moved to other parts of the town fearing renewed clashes.
Masked gunmen were seen taking up positions in Qaim on Tuesday, residents said.
U.S. military officials said that two other raids in the area over the last week had resulted in the capture of smugglers who "confessed to bringing weapons, foreign fighters and money for terrorists across the Syrian border into Iraq."
The news of the raids came as Rumsfeld made a surprise visit to Iraq to urge the country's new leaders to stay on track in forming a new government.
Rumsfeld said Washington hopes to see in the new government "highly competent people who are not going to politicize security forces" but will keep to the current strategy of maintaining a U.S. presence until Iraq's own forces are capable of defeating the insurgents.
The Iraqi government claimed to have captured a former member of Saddam Hussein's regime, Fadhil Ibrahim Mahmud al-Mashadani. The government said al-Mashadani was the leader of the military bureau in Baghdad under Saddam and it accused him of being "among the main facilitators of many terrorist attacks in Iraq."
"Al-Mashadani is believed to be personally responsible for coordinating and funding attacks against the Iraqi people," the statement said.
U.S. officials did not have any information.
Polish Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski, meanwhile, said his country wanted to pull its troops out of Iraq in the first few weeks of 2006, the latest blow to the U.S.-led coalition.
His announcement came as a suicide car bomber in the northern city of Mosul killed five civilians and injured four others, underlining the challenges facing Iraqi security forces being groomed to take over from multinational troops.
In nearby Talafar, a car bomb killed five people and wounded eight, including seven children, the U.S. military said.