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Fallujah Erupts, Again

US Death Toll in Iraq Nears 1000

by PATRICK COCKBURN

Baghdad.

A car bomb killed seven US Marines and three Iraqi soldiers outside the city of Fallujah yesterday, bringing the total number of American dead since the US invasion of Iraq in March last year close to 1,000.

An apparent suicide bomber blew himself up nine miles north of Fallujah, which has been controlled by Iraqi insurgents for the past six months, destroying two Humvee vehicles. The force of the explosion hurled the engine "a good distance" from the blast site, a military official said.

Four Iraqis were wounded when soldiers fired from the site of the bombing.

The deaths of the Marines from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force brings the death toll for members of the US military in Iraq since March 2003 to 985, the US Defence Department says. Some 7,000 US soldiers have been wounded in Iraq over the same period.

The attack may bring closer the day when the US army seeks to recapture Fallujah, 30 miles west of Baghdad, which has been a capital for insurgents since American forces failed to recapture it after a bloody three-week siege last April.

The US army and Marines lost 66 dead and 1,100 injured in August after fierce fighting against Shia fighters in Najaf as well as in the continuing war with Sunni guerrillas further north. Many severely wounded US soldiers, who would have died from injuries such as the loss of all their limbs in the Korean or Vietnam wars, now survive because of improved medical treatment.

The suicide bombing campaign has hitherto been directed primarily against the Iraqi police and army, not against US targets. If suicide bombers start to target the largely road-bound US soldiers their patrols and convoys will be extremely vulnerable.

The interim Iraqi government also suffered a blow to its credibility when it was forced to admit that it had not, contrary to claims on Saturday, captured Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a senior lieutenant of Saddam Hussein.

Two senior government officials had given convincing details of his detention. One said that Izzat Ibrahim, who suffers from leukaemia, had been caught in a clinic near Tikrit. Another said 50 of his supporters had been killed and 80 captured when they sought to rescue him.

General Babaker Zebari, the Iraqi army commander, confirmed the story on Sunday, although later in the day the Defence Minister, Hazim Shalaan, weighed in to say the report was baseless.

The government said yesterday that it had arrested a relative of Izzat Ibrahim, who was wanted but was not a member of Saddam’s regime. It has said nothing about the 50 people supposedly killed by the security forces.

The confusion shows the lack of co-ordination in the government and the difficulty it has in finding out what is happening outside Baghdad. In August the Interior Ministry falsely claimed that its police had entered the shrine in Najaf and arrested 400 members of the Mehdi Army.

Iyad Allawi, the Prime Minister, is moving closer to the information policies of the old regime by closing down operations of al-Jazeera, the widely-watched Arab satellite channel. Its offices in the Swan Lake hotel in Baghdad were firmly shut yesterday with blue-shirted policemen guarding the door and milling about in the lobby. The channel is popular, although seen by many Iraqis as biased towards the resistance and against the interim government.

Meanwhile, an internet statement, purportedly from the group holding the French journalists Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, has demanded that $5m (£2.8m) be paid within 48 hours. Over the weekend hopes were dashed of an early release of the men, who were seized south of Baghdad on 20 August by a group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq.