Iraq death toll rises after planes crash

Separate air crashes killed four American and four Italian troops, officials said today, and the governor of Anbar province was killed during clashes between US forces and the insurgents who abducted him three weeks ago.

Separate air crashes killed four American and four Italian troops, officials said today, and the governor of Anbar province was killed during clashes between US forces and the insurgents who abducted him three weeks ago.

In an audio tape purportedly of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the insurgent leader sent a message to al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden that he was in good health after suffering a slight wound in a firefight with US troops, and would ”tighten the noose” on his foes.

The cause of the two air crashes was not known.

The Iraqi single-engine Comp Air 7SL aircraft crashed yesterday near the village of Jalula, about 80 miles north-east of Baghdad, killing the four Americans and the Iraqi pilot, said US military spokesman Lt Col Fred Wellman. The aircraft, one of seven used by the Iraqi air force for surveillance and personnel transport, had been heading for Jalula from a Kirkuk air base, the military said in a statement.

The Italian AB-412 military helicopter crashed overnight about eight miles south-east of Nasiriyah, killing its two pilots and two passengers, all attached to the army, Italian military spokesman Lt Col Fabio Mattiassi said today. Most of Italy’s 3,000 troops are based in Nasiriyah, and 26 have been killed.

The body of the governor of volatile Anbar province, Raja Nawaf Farhan al-Mahalawi, was found on Sunday in the village of Rawah, about 175 miles north-west of Baghdad, said government spokesman Laith Kuba. Al-Mahalawi was abducted on May 10 near Qaim, a town near the Syrian border.

Al-Mahalawi was found tied to a gas cylinder inside a house following a gun battle between US forces and insurgents holed up in the house, Kuba said.

A military spokesman said a US helicopter had flown al-Mahalawi’s body Monday to Qaim, where his family identified him.

Qaim also was the site of a bloody battle between militants and US troops in May that al-Zarqawi claimed in the tape as a victory for the insurgency.

“Al-Qaim was the battlefield where the youth of Mohammed have proved their valiance after 10 days of fighting,” the speaker on the audio tape attributed to al-Zarqawi said.

“It was one of the greatest battles of Islam,” the speaker said, addressing bin Laden. “Our dear emir, if you want to know our news, we would like to assure you that we are continuing on the path of jihad, we are committed to our pledge. We will either win or die trying.”

The US military said it killed 125 militants during its week-long offensive against fighters of al-Zarqawi’s al Qaida in Iraq group. Nine US Marines were killed and 40 injured during the operation, one of the largest American campaigns since militants were driven from Fallujah six months ago.

The Sunday Times reported that al-Zarqawi was wounded in the chest by shrapnel when a US missile struck his convoy near Qaim three weeks ago. Although it reported the Jordanian may have travelled to Iran for treatment, Tehran denied the report.

“I am sure you have heard through the media that I was wounded and treated in a Ramadi hospital,” according to the recording. “I would like to assure you and the Muslim nation that these were pure allegations. It was a light wound, thank God. We are back fighting them in the land of the two rivers” – a reference to Iraq.

“The enemy – with God’s blessings – is following the path laid out for (it),” the tape went on. “We are about to – with God’s help – tighten the noose on it. And if the plan goes on as drawn, God willing, its results will be there for everyone to see.”

There was no way to authenticate the recording, although it was carried by a website frequently used by militant Islamic groups, and the voice sounded similar to that previously attributed to al-Zarqawi.

In new violence, gunmen killed Jerges Mohammed Sultan, an Iraqi journalist working for Iraqi state TV channel Al-Iraqiya, in the northern city of Mosul, said Dr Baha-aldin al-Bakri of al-Jumhouri hospital. Insurgents have targeted both the station and its employees.

A suicide car bomber killed two Iraqi soldiers in an early-morning attack on an army checkpoint near Buhriz, about 35 miles north of Baghdad, said Diyala provincial police spokesman Ali Fadhil.

Five gunmen fired from a speeding car on a police patrol in eastern Baghdad’s Doura district, wounding four policemen, said police Capt. Firas Qaiti.

Residents of Hit, 85 miles west of Baghdad, found the bullet-riddled bodies of four Iraqi soldiers who served under Saddam Hussein and had been kidnapped last week, one of the victim’s relatives said. It was unclear when the men were killed.

In Baghdad, the large-scale anti-insurgent campaign known as Operation Lightning was in its third day, and Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari praised its success.

“We have so far achieved good results and rounded up a large number of saboteurs, some are Iraqis and some are non-Iraqis,” al-Jaafari said without elaborating.

The operation, which will see more than 40,000 Iraqi security forces deployed to the capital’s streets, aims at ridding Baghdad of militants and, in particular, suicide car bombers.

Yesterday at least 27 policemen were killed and 118 wounded after two terrorists carrying explosives blew themselves up among a crowd of 500 commandos protesting a government move to disband their special forces unit in Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad.

In an apparent claim of responsibility, al Qaida in Iraq said in an alleged internet statement that one of its members attacked “a group of special Iraqi forces.” The same group claimed responsibility for a February 28 attack against police recruits in Hillah that killed 125 people.

Militants, particularly extremists entering from neighbouring states, regard Iraqi security forces as prime targets in their campaign against the US military, which hinges its eventual exit from Iraq on the ability of local soldiers and police to handle the insurgency.

Iraq’s raging insurgency, which has killed more than 760 people since the new Shiite-led government was announced April 28, is believed to be strongly backed by radical Sunni extremists.

Yesterday’s mistaken 12-hour detention of Iraqi Islamic Party leader Mohsen Abdul-Hamid by the US military did little to help American efforts to entice Iraq’s once-dominant Sunni community back into the political fold. Many Sunnis feel slighted by the rise to power of the country’s Shiite majority, which claimed political control following Saddam Hussein’s ouster in 2003.

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