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Five US soldiers, four Iraqis killed in bomb attacks

Study begins on possible return of UN

BAGHDAD -- Iraqi insurgents struck yesterday in the volatile Sunni Triangle, killing five US soldiers in separate bombings west of Baghdad and narrowly missing an American convoy with a blast that killed four Iraqis and wounded about 40 other people north of the capital.

The attacks occurred as United Nations security specialists began studying the possible return of UN staff members to play a key role in Iraq's transition to democracy. The thud of distant explosions rumbled across the capital late yesterday, heightening the sense of insecurity that still prevails nine months after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.

In Khaldiyah, about 70 miles west of Baghdad, three US soldiers were killed and six others were wounded when a vehicle, possibly driven by a suicide bomber, exploded at a US checkpoint near a bridge across the Euphrates River, the US command said.

Iraqi witnesses said a four-wheel-drive vehicle drove up to the checkpoint and exploded in front of a US Army Humvee trying to block it. At least eight Iraqis were injured, said Dr. Ahmed Nasrat Jabouri of the provincial hospital in nearby Ramadi.

Earlier yesterday, two US soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb that struck their four-vehicle convoy north of Fallujah, a town near Khaldiyah in a center of anti-American resistance.

The latest deaths brought to 512 the number of US service members who have died since the Iraq war began March 20. Most of the deaths have occurred since President Bush declared an end to active combat May 1.

A third attack took place when a truck bomb exploded yesterday morning near government buildings in Samarra, about 70 miles north of Baghdad, barely missing a US military police patrol as it entered a police station compound.

The blast killed four Iraqi civilians and wounded about 40 people, including seven US soldiers who were cut by flying glass inside one of the buildings, Captain Jennifer Knight of the 720th Military Police Battalion said. The soldiers' wounds were not life-threatening.

The explosion set fire to a half-dozen cars parked near the buildings, which included a police station and municipal offices, and created a large crater in the street. The burned-out hulks of the cars, some reduced to mounds of twisted metal, smoldered in the damp, chilly air hours after the blast.

Resistance to the US-led occupation has persisted in the Sunni Muslim heartland north and west of Baghdad, despite the Dec. 13 capture of Hussein.

In Baghdad, meanwhile, at least one sniper firing from a building wounded a US soldier on patrol in the upscale Mansour neighborhood west of the Tigris River, Major Kevin West said.

A bridge across the Tigris leading to the coalition headquarters was closed by US troops for two hours yesterday. Witnesses said soldiers were searching for a bomb, but that could not be independently confirmed.

The incidents underscored the precarious security situation throughout much of Iraq as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan weighs a request by US and Iraqi officials to play an increased role in the country's political transition. A two-member UN security team arrived Friday in Baghdad to study the possible return of agency staff members. They were withdrawn from Iraq in October after two attacks on the UN headquarters, including the truck bombing in August that killed top UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and 21 other people.

Annan is considering sending a separate security team that would be needed if he decides to send specialists to Iraq to determine whether early elections for a transitional government are feasible.

Meanwhile, Iraq's foreign minister said yesterday that he expects the UN to accept a US request to study prospects for elections before America transfers power to the Iraqis. He said he hopes recommendations can be ready quickly, within two to three weeks.

If there is a legislative election before the handover, Hoshyar Zebari said, it would require a census and could delay the handover.

He said the Iraqi Governing Council is committed to the terms of the agreement that it signed with the US-led coalition calling for a transfer of power by July 1.

The country's leading Shi'ite Muslim cleric has demanded direct elections for a new Iraqi legislature rather than a US plan for selecting legislators in 18 regional caucuses.

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