U.S. soldiers and warplanes killed 20 insurgents suspected of sheltering foreign al Qaeda militants Saturday and destroyed their safehouses near the Syrian border. In Baghdad, election officials said no significant fraud was detected in Iraq's landmark vote on a constitution, releasing partial results amid repeated delays in the count.The United States has confirmed that four American contractors were killed and two wounded in Iraq last month when their convoy got lost and was attacked by an angry mob of insurgents. The British newspaper The Daily Telegraph reports the contractors worked for Halliburton.
The U.S. military reported two service members killed, as the American death toll since the war started nearly three years ago inched closer to 2,000.
In Saturday's fighting, U.S.-led forces raided safehouses in Husaybah, a town near the Syrian border, killing 20 insurgents suspected of sheltering al Qaida in Iraq foreign fighters and capturing one, the military said.
The raids also discovered two large weapons caches containing small arms, ammunition, rocket-propelled grenades, mortar rounds, explosives, and bomb-making materials, it said.
The soldiers destroyed a car bomb found near one of the buildings, and the Air Force then used precision-guided munitions to destroy the safe houses.
The fighting came amid a lull in insurgent attacks since the Oct. 15 referendum on Iraq's new constitution. Seven Iraqis — including two civilians — were reported killed in drive-by shootings and bomb blasts Saturday. But in the past week there have been none of the major suicide attacks that militants have unleashed previously, causing large numbers of casualties.
In related developments:
A British newspaper reported Saturday that an opinion poll shows 45 percent of Iraqis believe attacks against American and British troops are justified. The study was commissioned by Britain's Ministry of Defense and reveals that fewer than one percent of Iraqis believe U.S.-led coalition forces have helped improved security in Iraq, The Sunday Telegraph reported.
One of the latest dead was a Marine killed by an explosion near the western town of Haqlaniyah on Friday, the final day of Operation River Gate, an offensive that began Oct. 4 in several towns in that area with 2,500 U.S. forces and several hundred Iraqi troops. After the blast went off, other Marines clashed with insurgents, killing four and destroying a nearby bunker with an unknown number of gunmen inside, the military said.
In Washington, U.S. intelligence officials said Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, has expanded his terrorism campaign from Iraq to two dozen groups scattered across almost 40 countries, creating a network that rivals Osama bin Laden's. The U.S. officials said the threat to American interests from al-Zarqawi compared with that from bin Laden, to whom al-Zarqawi pledged his loyalty a year ago.
In other violence Saturday, two roadside bombs and a drive-by shooting killed three Iraqi policemen and wounded four in Baghdad, authorities said. Gunmen also killed a former Iraqi soldier in front of his home in Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, police said.
Defense lawyers in Saddam Hussein's mass murder protection from Iraq's Interior Ministry offered after the kidnap-slaying of one attorney. The defense suggested they wanted American protection, deeply suspicious of an Iraqi police force they say has assassinated Sunni Arabs in the past. Saadoun al-Janabi, a lawyer for one of Saddam's co-defendants, was abducted Thursday night — a day after he appeared at the trial's first session. Police said the gunmen in al-Janabi's slaying were wearing uniforms as a disguise.
Iraqis will have to wait until at least Monday to hear the final outcome of the referendum as election officials examine unusually high "yes" votes in four provinces, including Ninevah province, which is key to whether the constitution is adopted or rejected.
The electoral commission underlined on Saturday that no significant fraud occured in the voting and that the review was only to determine the cause of "statistically unexpected" numbers.
"We did not find any significant violations that would have any effect on the final results of the referendum," commission member Safwat Rashid told a press conference in Baghdad.
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