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U.S. soldier killed at Iraq checkpoint

/ Source: NBC News and news services

A U.S. soldier was killed Wednesday south of Baghdad when his Humvee was rammed by a dump truck at the checkpoint he was manning, the U.S. military said.

It said in a statement the soldier, of the 1st Armored Division, died of injuries in what it described as an attack by the driver of the dump truck, who tried to burst through the checkpoint near Kerbala Wednesday morning.

It did not say what happened to the truck or its driver.

The incident followed an assault by U.S.-led coalition forces on the governor’s headquarters occupied by members of the Mehdi Army loyal to wanted Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said at a news conference that coalition forces took control of the building after a prolonged firefight. Ten members of al-Sadr's militia were killed and 21 suspects detained.

Polish command also announces death
The announcement of the U.S. soldier's death came after the Polish command in Iraq announced that a coalition soldier had been killed. The statement did not specify the nationality of the dead soldier and it was not immediately clear whether the death was the same one announced later by the U.S. military.

Polish, Bulgarian, U.S. and other peacekeepers all are active in the Kerbala area.

Meantime, U.S. forces attacked a van near the cities of Kufa and Najaf after Iraqis were seen unloading weapons. The vehicle was destroyed and five Iraqis killed, Kimmitt said.

In Najaf, militiamen of al-Sadr’s Al-Mahdi Army ambushed three U.S. Humvees. Soldiers opened fire on the attackers, who withdrew. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Coalition troops also raided and occupied al-Sadr’s office in the city of Diwaniyah in order to “reduce militia influence in the city,” Kimmitt said. The troops were fired on from a vehicle, which was destroyed.

Three U.S. soldiers also were reportedly wounded when a roadside bomb hit their convoy near Baquba on Wednesday, witnesses said. The U.S. military did not immediately confirm the attack.

Earlier this week, U.S. soldiers clashed repeatedly with al-Sadr militiamen in Najaf, where al-Sadr is holed up.

Cleric's forces step up attacks
His forces have stepped up attacks in recent days in Najaf. Their assaults seem aimed either at pressuring U.S. officials to negotiate an end to the standoff or at goading troops into a heavy retaliation that would inflame Shiites.

The military has been wary of sparking broader fighting. Al-Sadr, who launched his uprising in April, has an office near Iraq’s holiest Shiite shrine.

But after a month of confrontation, there are growing signs fellow Iraqis may solve Washington’s problem with al-Sadr themselves.

Apparently growing impatient with the cleric, a host of leading Shiite politicians met on Tuesday to demand that he move his force out of Karbala and the nearby holy city of Najaf. It was not immediately clear whether the leaders had made any headway in efforts to persuade al-Sadr to leave.

There also was optimistic news from Fallujah, a turbulent city west of Baghdad, where a deal between local ex-soldiers and U.S. Marines appeared to be settling into something close to peace. Marines planned to lift a security cordon on the most violent district and fighting has died away.

The 1st Battalion of the Fallujah Brigade, which now numbers 1,500 Iraqi troops, conducted patrols Tuesday in southern Fallujah and also began joint patrols with U.S. Marines in the northern section of the city, U.S. military officials told NBC News on Wednesday.

No evidence of crackdown on insurgents
U.S. commanders concede that some members of the new Iraqi force in the town may be drawn from the ranks of the insurgents or deposed Iraqi dictator's military and it remains unclear that these will meet all U.S. demands.

U.S. officials have said the Fallujah Brigade would crack down on hard-core guerrillas in the city even though the force itself would likely include some of the gunmen involved in fighting against the Marines.

Since Friday, however, masked and armed insurgents have moved freely in the city’s streets and the Iraqi troops have yet to confiscate any heavy weapons or bring in any enemy foreign fighters, U.S. officials said.

Still, the situation in Fallujah was returning to normal, with residents assisting in opening up roads and removing debris caused from the recent fighting, the officials said.

Meanwhile, Marines were distributing leaflets inviting Fallujah residents to apply for compensation if their homes were damaged during the nearly month-long military crackdown.

The military also is promising to focus on reconstruction projects — repairing mosques and other damaged buildings, cleaning the streets, and improving water supplies.

Pentagon puts troop drawdown on hold
The effort to repair relations in the restive Sunni city came a day after the Defense Department announced it is sending about 37,000 Reserve and National Guard troops to Iraq to help maintain the current level of about 135,000 U.S. troops.

The plans came to light shortly before Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced that 10,000 active-duty Army and Marine troops would be sent to Iraq for one-year tours and that 10,000 more active-duty troops would be notified later of their one-year tours in Iraq.

Rumsfeld said at a news conference at the Pentagon that he approved the 20,000 extra Army and Marine troops at the request of Gen. John Abizaid, the top commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East. They will replace 20,000 other troops who are serving 90 days beyond their promised yearlong tours of duty, which were scheduled to end in April.

The decision acknowledges that Iraq is much more unstable and dangerous than U.S. generals had hoped earlier this year, when they planned to cut the number of troops occupying Iraq to about 115,000. The 20,000 new troops will keep the number at its current level, instead.

Move follows war's bloodiest month
The move came after the bloodiest month of the war for the Americans, with 129 killed amid increasingly hostile insurgencies. At least 759 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since the war began in March 2003.

How long the force level will remain steady was unclear. Some defense officials, quoted by Reuters, said they hoped to stay at 135,000 troops through the fall and perhaps into winter, while others, quoted by The Associated Press, said they would stay through the end of 2005.

The 37,000 reservists and Guard troops, meanwhile, will join in the normal rotation of U.S. forces into and out of Iraq.