Churches hit in new wave of Iraq bombings

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The Independent Online

Suspected rebel targets in Fallujah were hit by US warplanes yesterday as a wave of bombings was carried out across Iraq after insurgents threatened an upsurge in attacks to herald the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Suspected rebel targets in Fallujah were hit by US warplanes yesterday as a wave of bombings was carried out across Iraq after insurgents threatened an upsurge in attacks to herald the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The news broke as two US military helicopters crashed near Baghdad, killing two US soldiers and injuring two others. It was not clear if the crash was an accident or the result of an attack.

Five Baghdad churches were among the targets in the bombing campaign and there were a number of attacks at the town of Qaim, near the Syrian border. A suicide car bomber killed three American soldiers and an Iraqi civilian, followed by a mortar attack that killed four Iraqis and injured 30 others. Elsewhere, a US soldier was killed by a car bomb in Mosul and a prominent Turkman politician was assassinated in Kirkuk. A hospital and a hotel in Baghdad were hit by mortar shells.

Civic leaders in Fallujah initially offered to renew peace talks with the Iraqi interim government in an effort to prevent an expected assault on the town by the Americans. They set a precondition for the US to end attacks and to release the chairman of the negotiating delegation, Khaled al-Jumaili, who was arrested by US soldiers on Friday.

The US response was to shell suspected guerrilla positions, and tanks were seen moving into positions on the town's outskirts.

A 1,000-strong American force backed by armour and artillery is in position around the town, but more troops are expected. Some of the reinforcements may be replaced by British troops, with a battalion of the Black Watch possibly being sent to Baghdad from Basra.

American soldiers were also being questioned yesterday, facing possible courts martial, after refusing to deliver supplies along routes where there have been frequent ambushes. On one occasion, 19 members of a platoon of the 343rd Quartermaster Company failed to report for duty in Talil, south-east Iraq. The soldiers, who are reservists, claimed their lives were being put in danger by having to travel in inadequately armoured vehicles. They complained that reservists were given inferior equipment to regular soldiers.

Amber McClenny, one of the soldiers being held, told her mother in Alabama by telephone: "We had broken-down trucks, non-armoured vehicles, and we were carrying contaminated fuel. They are holding us against our will. We are now prisoners."

The Baghdad church bombings came two months after five other churches were bombed in the capital, killing 12 people and injuring 61 others. There were no casualties in yesterday's attacks, but the Christian community in the country has come under repeated sectarian attack from Muslim extremists since the occupation, and about 45,000 out of a population of around 600,000 have fled abroad.

The mortar attack on the Melia Mansour Hotel damaged the car park and the lobby. Its guests are mainly from the dwindling contingent of international media. At the Ibn al-Betar hospital, the shell landed in the garden, killing an employee.

In Kirkuk, Ghafour Abu Bakr, of the Turkman Front, was shot dead as he was driving his children to school.

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