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4 British, 8 U.S. troops are slain

Times Staff Writer

Four British soldiers and a civilian interpreter were killed in an ambush Thursday and the U.S. military announced the deaths of eight soldiers in an unusually bloody 48 hours for Western forces in Iraq.

At least 38 Iraqis also were found slain Thursday in bombings, shellings, gunfire and execution-style killings. They included two television journalists and a 3-year-old boy felled by a sniper’s bullet as he sat in his grandfather’s lap, police said.

A U.S. helicopter, meanwhile, went down south of Baghdad, injuring four of the nine personnel aboard, the military said. The cause of the incident and the type of aircraft were not immediately announced. The U.S. military said it had launched an investigation but provided no further details.

At least nine American choppers have crashed or been shot down this year, raising concerns that insurgents may be becoming more effective at targeting aircraft. The frequency of flights also could be a factor, as the military relies heavily on aircraft to ferry troops and equipment to avoid roadside bombs.

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The British troops were searching for a weapons cache in downtown Basra before dawn Thursday when they came under attack from rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire, said Lt. Col. Kevin Stratford-Wright, a military spokesman in the southern oil port city. The troops repelled the attack, apparently killing at least one of their assailants, he said.

As they returned to base, the troops were hit by a roadside bomb and came under small-arms fire on the western side of the city. The bomb ripped through a Warrior armored vehicle, killing five occupants and seriously injuring a sixth, Stratford-Wright said. Two other people sustained minor wounds.

It was the deadliest assault on British forces since Nov. 12, when four military personnel were killed on a patrol boat in the Shatt al Arab waterway. The latest deaths raised to 140 the number of British troops killed in Iraq since the start of the war in March 2003.

Residents blamed Thursday’s bombing on members of the Al Mahdi militia, which is loyal to radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr. But numerous armed bands operate in the city, and it was not possible to verify the reports.

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British forces, whose bases are shelled almost daily, were pressing ahead with plans to hand over security control of Basra to Iraqi forces. Last month, they withdrew from one of three bases in the city center.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in February that his nation’s military would begin pulling out 1,600 of its 7,000 troops in Iraq in the coming months.

Blair, whose government only the day before won the release of 15 sailors and marines held by Iran for 13 days, cited Thursday’s attack in guardedly discussing possible Iranian involvement with violence in the south.

“It is far too early to say that the particular terrorist act that killed our forces was an act committed by terrorists who were backed by any elements of the Iranian regime,” Blair said in London. “But the general picture, as I’ve said before, is that there are elements at least of the Iranian regime that are backing, financing, arming [and] supporting terrorism in Iraq.”

Most of the U.S. casualties in recent days occurred in Baghdad, where thousands of additional troops are deploying in the latest effort to quell sectarian violence. Stepped-up patrols by U.S. and Iraqi forces in the capital are meant to make the troops more visible and improve relations with residents, but they also leave the troops more vulnerable to attack.

Four U.S. soldiers were killed and four were injured in two bombings Wednesday in Baghdad, the military said. One more was shot and killed during a reconnaissance mission that day. And two were killed Tuesday by small-arms fire while patrolling different parts of the city, it said.

On Thursday, a U.S. soldier was killed when a roadside bomb hit his vehicle east of Baghdad in Diyala province, the military said.

At least 3,266 U.S. service members have been killed in the war, according to the website icasualties.org.

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In Thursday’s worst attack, gunmen overran a remote Iraqi army post near the Badush prison, killing all 10 soldiers at the site near the northern city of Mosul.

U.S. officials have expressed concern about the number of car bombings and suicide attacks, which have persisted in the capital and elsewhere despite the nearly 2-month-old crackdown.

A suicide bomber Thursday drove a trash truck packed with explosives into a blast wall blocking a Baghdad street that is home to a military intelligence building and a TV station belonging to a major Sunni Muslim political party, police said.

At least three people were killed and 10 were injured in the building of Baghdad TV, which took the brunt of the blast, officials said. The dead included the station’s assistant manager, Tahir Ahmed Jabr.

Police also found the body of Khamael Muhsin, who rose to prominence as an announcer on Iraqi television under the late President Saddam Hussein. Colleagues believed she was kidnapped Wednesday in a violent part of west Baghdad, a local media group said.

At least 76 Iraqi journalists have been killed since 2003, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

The 3-year-old boy who was slain, named Ali, was taken to Baghdad’s Yarmouk Hospital. He was shot in his grandfather’s lap in a car at a south Baghdad intersection, officials said.

Police in the capital recovered at least 10 bodies, all shot execution-style.

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Iraqi officials hope an upcoming ministerial meeting, which will include representatives from neighboring countries, the United States and other world powers, will lead to steps to stem the violence.

Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told The Times on Thursday that the meeting, originally planned for this month, would take place in May. He declined to explain the delay.

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zavis@latimes.com

Times staff writer Kim Murphy in London and special correspondents in Baghdad, Kirkuk, Mosul and Basra contributed to this report.


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