BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP -Heavy fighting surged Friday in the Euphrates River city of Ramadi, police and hospital officials said, and the U.S. military reported the deaths of two more soldiers around the militant stronghold, scene of nearly one-quarter of 29 American deaths this month.
In Baghdad, a suicide bomber on a public minibus set off an explosives belt on Friday as the vehicle approached a busy terminal Friday, killing at least five people and wounding eight, police said. Elsewhere in the capital, a roadside bomb killed a U.S. Army soldier whose convoy was patrolling southeastern Baghdad Friday night, raising to at least 1,913 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003.
Gunmen also killed a member of the commission charged with ensuring former members of Saddam Hussein”s Baathist regime are banned from the Iraqi government, police said. Thirteen commission members have been killed since it was created two years ago.
The U.S. military declined to say if it was conducting a large offensive against Ramadi, but police and residents have reported heavy fighting there during the past week. Seven service members have died in or near the city since Sept. 1.
"There are 30 to 40 battalion-level operations going on across Iraq on any given day," said Lt. Col. Steven A. Boylan, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. "What you are seeing is the pattern of operations that we have been conducting almost every day here."
The latest U.S. military deaths there occurred Thursday when two soldiers were killed, one by a roadside bombing between Ramadi and Fallujah, the other in a gunbattle in Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad.
Ramadi police Capt. Nasir Al-Alousi said American forces airlifted equipment into the city stadium before dawn Friday. He said clashes erupted in that area and spread to an industrial zone after sunrise, continuing until at least midday.
Dr. Omar al-Rawi at Ramadi General Hospital said two people were killed and eight wounded in the fighting. Police Lt. Mohammed Tirbas Al-Obaidi said a roadside bomb destroyed an American armored vehicle, but it was impossible to say if there were casualties because U.S. forces blocked the area.
The deadliest day for U.S. forces in Ramadi this month was Monday, when four soldiers attached to the Marines died in two roadside bombings.
Militants have used Ramadi as a stronghold since the start of the insurgency two years ago. The city of about 300,000 is the capital of Anbar province, which fans out west from Baghdad to the Saudi, Jordanian and Syrian borders.
It includes much of the Sunni heartland, where residents lived a relatively privileged life under Saddam, a Sunni. Since Saddam”s ouster by the U.S.-led coalition, the insurgency has grown in strength. At one time or another, militants have controlled most of the major population centers along the Euphrates, which flows southwest through the province from the Syrian border toward Baghdad.
U.S. forces conducted a major offensive in the region in November to retake control of Fallujah, 30 miles east of Ramadi. American troops continue fighting skirmishes along the Euphrates, a major infiltration route for foreign fighters sneaking into the country from Syria to fight under the banner of al-Qaida in Iraq, the creation of Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi.
A major focus of U.S. operations in Anbar province, a senior American military officer has said, was to help the Iraqis regain control of a 250-mile stretch of Syrian border on either side of the city of Qaim. The official said it was imperative that the border be closed to insurgents before the Oct. 15 referendum on Iraq”s new constitution.
Much of the minority Sunni political and religious leadership — and now some Shiite leaders — oppose the proposed charter. But the new basic law got a major boost this week, winning support from Iraq”s most revered Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
In the southern city of Basra, meanwhile, an Iraqi government delegation from Baghdad was meeting with a provincial commission to examine evidence about anti-British rioting in the city Monday and serious tensions that have developed between local authorities and British forces in the region.
The violence broke out after two undercover British soldiers were jailed in the city and demonstrators attacked armored fighting vehicles the British deployed around the prison. Five Iraqis were killed in the mayhem.
British troops used the armored vehicles to crash through the walls of the prison and later freed the two soldiers, whom London said had fallen into the hands of militiamen.
The Basra governor said the British violated Iraqi sovereignty and ordered government employees to stop cooperating with members of the 8,500-strong British force there. The governor also demanded the British apologize and pay compensation to Iraqi victims.
Safaa al-Safi, parliament”s minister of state and head of an investigative committee formed by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, led the government delegation to Basra on Friday. He promised residents satisfaction.
"I ask you all to trust the Iraqi government, which will insure the rights of the victims (of Monday”s violence), and I will not overlook what happened because that would be an insult to the government and the Iraqi people," he said.
Britain insists its military acted appropriately to free its soldiers from their militia captors, said by some to make up at least 60 percent of the Iraqi police force in the south, taking orders from religious rather than political leaders.