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Grenade explodes on roof of Dutch Embassy in Iraq

BAGHDAD -- Attackers fired two rocket-propelled grenades at the Dutch Embassy in Iraq last night, striking the roof with one and setting it on fire. The blaze was extinguished quickly, and no injuries were reported.

A senior US officer said coalition forces were prepared to deal with any surge in violence during the coming Muslim holiday. The start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan last year was accompanied by a sharp escalation in attacks by insurgents.

A grenade exploded on the roof of the Dutch Embassy after nightfall, triggering a small fire. Security guards said a second grenade missed the building.

Hours after the attack, the sound of strong explosions reverberated through the Iraqi capital. A US military spokesman said he had no information on the cause of the blasts.

The Netherlands has about 1,100 troops in southern Iraq as part of the US-led coalition. The Dutch withdrew most of their diplomats in October because of deteriorating security and maintain a staff of five Dutch nationals in Baghdad, none of whom was in the building when it was attacked, the Dutch Foreign Ministry said.

Coalition officials are bracing for trouble during the four-day Eid al-Adha, or Feast of Sacrifice, which begins tomorrow. The feast commemorates the Koran's account of God allowing the patriarch Abraham to sacrifice a sheep instead of his son Ismail.

In October, insurgents marked the beginning of the month of fasting, Ramadan, with a series of bloody strikes, including a rocket barrage on the Rasheed Hotel, vehicle bombings against the international Red Cross, and the Nov. 12 suicide attack in Nasiriyah that killed 26 people, most of them Italian paramilitary police.

"We have done some intelligence gathering for the near term during the Eid period, and we are fully prepared to deal with any insurgency," Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, deputy chief of operations for the coalition, said yesterday. He did not elaborate.

In a briefing for reporters, Kimmitt also said that during the past week, 18 engagements occurred on average each day between coalition and insurgent forces -- roughly the same as in recent weeks but down from a spike of about 50 daily clashes in November.

To help root out insurgents, Iraqi authorities, with the help of US intelligence agencies, are creating an intelligence service to hunt the guerrillas, The New York Times reported today. The CIA is taking the lead in helping put together the new agency, which is expected to include some former agents of Saddam Hussein's security apparatus.

This month, 34 US soldiers have been killed by hostile fire, down from the 68 combat fatalities in November but more than the 25 battle deaths in December.

In Mosul, residents said US troops searching for three soldiers missing since last weekend came under rocket-propelled grenade fire yesterday. There were no US casualties. The US command in Baghdad said it had no information on the report.

One of the soldiers had disappeared last Sunday when a patrol boat capsized in the Tigris River. A OH-58D Kiowa helicopter searching for the soldier crashed into the river soon after, and the two pilots also were missing.

Also in Mosul, an Iraqi civil defense trooper was killed and seven fellow corpsmen were wounded in a drive-by shooting, First Lieutenant Khadir Abdullah Abed said.

In other events, Iraqi officials said a car bomb on a major oil route in the north was defused. Iraqi police killed an attacker after gunmen opened fire yesterday at a checkpoint south of Kirkuk.

The car was found late Thursday on the Hawija bridge, 150 miles north of Baghdad, on a route used by coalition forces and oil tankers transporting crude from the northern oil fields in Kirkuk to Iraq's biggest refinery in Beiji, according to Kirkuk police chief General Turhan Youssef.

Youssef said Iraqi police found the car and informed coalition forces, who defused the bomb. Later, four people were arrested for suspected involvement, he said.

South of Kirkuk, six gunmen opened fire yesterday on a checkpoint of the Iraqi Civil Defense Forces in Salman Beg. An attacker was killed and another injured in retaliatory fire, said General Anwar Amin, the forces' chief in Kirkuk.

Despite the violence, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said yesterday that a UN team may leave for Iraq in a few days to assess the possibility of holding early legislative elections.

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