Violence escalates in Iraq

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US troops came under attack from rocket–propelled grenades in two separate ambushes in and around Baghdad today, and a massive explosion at a mosque in the town of Fallujah killed 10 Iraqis .

As level of violence in Iraq escalated, the head of Saddam Hussein's tribe was killed when the car in which he was travelling was attacked by gunmen in the ousted dictator's home town of Tikrit, the regional governor said today.

Abdullah Mahmoud al–Khattab, leader of Saddam's Bani al–Nasiri tribe, was killed in the attack on Sunday. His son was wounded, said the governor, Hussein al–Jubouri.

Saddam appointed Al–Khattab as tribal chief, who remained close to the dictator during his 35–year rule. However, several weeks ago, after the US–led invasion, he publicly disavowed Saddam in the presence of local leaders and American troops.

The governor said al–Khattab "had many enemies and he had confiscated a lot of properties and killed many people.The person who killed him could have taken revenge."

Iraqi civilians said the explosion in Fallujah late last night was caused by a missile or bomb strike, but the US military denied they were responsible arguing that it was probably caused when explosives hidden at the site went off.

Early today, a rocket propelled–grenade was fired at a US military vehicle from a vehicle in the Mustansiryah neighborhood of central Baghdad, destroying it and causing some casualties.

One witness, 19–year–old Ali Ibrahim Shakir, said he saw two US soldiers being evacuated onto stretchers. He said he could not tell if the soldiers had been hurt or killed.

A Mercedes travelling alongside the American vehicle was also hit, wounding the Iraqi civilian who was driving it, said witness Mohammed Abdullah. After the attack, three US helicopters hovered over the site.

The US military reported an attack in Baghdad that injured three soldiers. It was not immediately clear if the attack they were referring to was the one in Mustansiryah.

Also today, witnesses said another rocket–propelled grenade slammed into a US truck on a road in the town of Mahmudiyah 12 miles south of Baghdad.

In Fallujah, witnesses said the blast took place just before 11 p.m. Monday in a small cinderblock building in the courtyard of the al–Hassan mosque. The explosion blew out the walls and took down the roof of the structure.

Colonel Guy Shields, spokesman for the US military in Baghdad, said 10 Iraqis were killed and four others were wounded.

"They (soldiers) saw the explosion, went to investigate and when they got there the building's walls and ceilings had been destroyed," Col. Shields told reporters.

Hours after the explosion, dozens of people gathered around the destroyed mosque shouting anti–American slogans amid the rubble.

Fallujah, 35 miles west of Baghdad, has been a hotbed of anti–American activity and scene of several confrontations between US troops and insurgents. US soldiers shot and killed 20 protesters in April, provoking widespread resentment.

On Tuesday, a US sweep to snuff out remaining pockets of anti–occupation resistance in the so–called "Sunni triangle" north and east of Baghdad, entered its third day. Troops detained a colonel from Saddam's Baath Party along with five other individuals, a military statement said Monday, without providing details. The statement said at least 319 Iraqis have been detained in several operations, though none of Iraq's most wanted fugitives are believed to be among them.

US troops have been increasingly targeted in recent weeks, raising fears that their mission will become mired by a guerrilla–style insurgency. At least 20 American and six British troops have been killed by hostile fire since President Bush declared the end of major combat in Iraq on 1 May. There have been no reports of US casualties since the sweep began, the military said.