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Violence hits ahead of Iraq war milestone
Updated: 2004-03-19 09:14

More violence struck Iraq ahead of the anniversary of the start of the U.S.-led war that ousted Saddam Hussein: a deadly car bomb exploded Thursday in a southern city, three Iraqi journalists were killed in a drive-by shooting and three U.S. soldiers perished in mortar attacks.

An Iraqi policeman guards the area after a bomb exploded outside Basra's Mirbad hotel March 18, 2004, killing at least six people, two days before the anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.  [Reuters]
The suicide car bombing occurred near a hotel in Basra as a British military patrol passed by, killing two men and a boy in addition to the bomber. A man who got out of the car before the blast was stabbed to death by passers-by.

The Iraqi journalists were killed as they drove to work at a coalition-funded television station in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. Nine other employees of Diyala TV were wounded in the attack on their minibus, said Sanaa al-Daghistani, the station's information director.

Rebels often target Iraqis perceived as collaborators with the occupation.

The U.S. military, meanwhile, lowered the death toll in a suicide bombing at a Baghdad hotel on Wednesday to seven.

Officials had earlier said 27 people were killed in the Baghdad bombing. It then revised that downward to 17 dead without providing an explanation. Hours later, the military said that just seven had been killed.

There was no clear explanation for the change but Iraq doesn't have a centralized system for handling such tragedies, and with the bodies of victims going to different morgues, government departments and other agencies often disagree over death tolls.

Late Thursday, insurgents targeted the Ministry of Oil and the Bourj al-Hayat Hotel in Baghdad with several rockets and explosive devices. There were no injuries. One projectile punctured a hole in the second floor of the hotel, which sometimes houses Kurdish politicians.

Sirens also wailed briefly in the area housing the U.S.-led coalition headquarters. A U.S. military official said there had been an attack and it was under investigation. There were no casualties.

It was unclear whether insurgents were timing attacks to overshadow the anniversary of the March 20, 2003, start of the war that toppled Saddam, though assailants have often conducted attacks on holidays and other significant dates.

The aim of anti-U.S. forces appears to be to demonstrate that Iraq is ungovernable despite some American progress in its nation-building effort, including the formation of an Iraqi police force, the signing of an interim constitution and plans to hand over power to Iraqis on June 30.

"We were fighting them knowing full well the better we did the harder it would get," said Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division, which oversees security in Baghdad. He said the fight in Iraq was evolving into a battle against shadowy extremists who attack civilians rather than soldiers.

"It is far easier to fight an enemy who fights you conventionally and who fights you in some similar fashion to the way you fight him, than it is to fight an enemy who uses the tools of terror," he said.

A man suspected of involvement in the Basra bombing who left the vehicle shortly before the blast was caught by passers-by and stabbed to death, said police Lt. Col. Ali Kazem. Two others spotted getting out of the vehicle were caught by members of the public and later arrested.

At least 15 people were wounded, three seriously, hospital officials said. No British soldiers were wounded.

Unlike other areas of Iraq, Basra has been relatively calm.

Insurgents also fired mortar rounds at two U.S. military bases on Wednesday, killing three American soldiers and wounding nine others, the U.S. military said Thursday. The deaths brought to 567 the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq since the start of hostilities last year, according to Defense Department figures.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said 35 people were wounded in Wednesday's car bombing, which destroyed the Mount Lebanon Hotel in Baghdad. Scott Mounce, 29, of Scotland was killed and another Briton was wounded, the British government said.

U.S. Army Col. Jill Morgenthaler said the attack was a suicide bombing but said the hotel may not have been the intended target because the explosives-laden vehicle was in the middle of the street and not in front of the hotel.

The hotel is in a busy district of commercial and residential buildings. The explosion set ablaze nearby homes, offices, cars and shops, sending dazed and wounded people stumbling from the wreckage.

Dempsey said if the hotel was the target, the attack bore a closer resemblance to targets of Ansar al-Islam, an extremist group with apparent links to al-Qaeda.

The network of al-Qaeda-linked Jordanian Islamic militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi usually attacks Iraqi targets Shiite pilgrims or Iraqi police with an aim to sowing discord and perhaps civil war.

An unidentified Jordanian suspected of having links with al-Zarqawi was arrested recently on the outskirts of Baghdad, Dempsey said. The detainee was caught with a bomb.

The Mount Lebanon was a so-called "soft target" because it did not have concrete blast barriers and other security measures that protect coalition offices and buildings where Westerners live and work.

In the restive town of Fallujah on Thursday, insurgents with AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades clashed with U.S. troops guarding a government building. One civilian died and another was wounded, witnesses said. The U.S. military said eight U.S. soldiers and a Marine were wounded when a mortar round hit a roof.

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