A car bomb exploded in the heart of Baghdad Thursday, killing 17 people in a crowded commercial area, police said. Meanwhile, U.S. forces hammered southern Fallujah with renewed airstrikes and artillery.
The strikes targeted mortar positions and sniper nests, in preparation for a ground assault on insurgents trapped in this part of the former militant stronghold.
A police captain at the scene of the Baghdad blast, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the it had narrowly missed a U.S. convoy that passed by seconds before.
The explosion gouged a giant crater near Nasser Square on Saadoun Street, a densely populated commercial area with major hotels housing foreigners.
An Associated Press reporter on the scene saw five dead bodies in the rubble, including a decapitated corpse. Police said at least 17 people were killed.
In other developments:
Loud explosions rocked Fallujah throughout the morning as gunfire reverberated across town. Smoke rose above Fallujah as helicopters hovered overhead. Marines were seen perched on rooftops. Many buildings were heavily damaged with few signs of civilians.
In the past 24 hours of fighting, three American troops were killed while another 17 were wounded in Fallujah, the U.S. military said. The number of enemy fighters killed was not available, with U.S. officials saying rebel casualties from airstrikes was difficult to confirm.
U.S. troops were steadily advancing through the city from the northern end, pushing militants slowly into the southern half of Fallujah. With U.S. units positioned to the south and east, and the Euphrates River on the west, insurgents are being squeezed into a corner, the military said.
Insurgents have sought to open a second front elsewhere in Iraq, mounting attacks outside Fallujah and kidnapping three relatives of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Militants also claimed to have abducted 20 Iraqi National Guard troops in Fallujah. The latest kidnappings were part of a surge of attacks outside the city — an attempt by militants to divert U.S.-Iraqi forces.
On Wednesday, American warplanes fired on the city's main street and market as well as Jolan, one of several neighborhoods where troops were skirmishing with militants.
In what could be a sign of progress, the Marines began turning over the northern neighborhood of Jolan to Iraqi forces, signaling that Marines consider the area relatively secure. Jolan was considered one of the strongest positions held by militants inside Fallujah.
In one of the most dramatic clashes Wednesday, snipers fired on U.S. and Iraqi troops from the minarets of the Khulafah Al Rashid mosque, the military said. U.S. Marines called in an airstrike, and an F-18 dropped a 500-pound bomb on the mosque, destroying both minarets
Pool footage showed U.S. forces battling insurgents in a neighborhood surrounding the mosque. Troops were pinned down by gunfire on a rooftop, forced to hit the deck and lay on their stomachs.
"When they're using a mosque to do command and control for insurgents and kill my fellow Marines and soldiers and airmen that are out here — no holds barred, the gloves are off," said Marine Staff Sgt. Sam Mortimer.
The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, told President Bush on Wednesday that his troops were "making very good progress" securing Iraq.
"He said that things are going well in Fallujah," Bush said, adding that his Iraq commanders had not asked for more troops. The U.S. military has sent up to 15,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops into the battle, backed by tanks, artillery and attack aircraft.
Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, the commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said insurgents had been reduced to "small pockets, blind, moving throughout the city. And we will continue to hunt them down and destroy them."
"When they attempted to flee from one zone to another they were killed," Sattler said. "We feel very comfortable that none of them moved back toward the north or escaped on the flanks."
Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, is the centerpiece of the Sunni Muslim insurgency that has stymied U.S. efforts to secure Iraq and prepare for national elections that are scheduled for January.
At least 28 people died across the country Wednesday — including 10 who died when a car bomb targeted a police patrol in the capital after sunset. U.S. troops clashed with insurgents in Baghdad and the cities of Ramadi, Mosul and Latifiyah.
"As we put the clamp on Fallujah, we expect stepped-up attacks elsewhere in the country," said Capt. P.J. Batty, of the 3rd Battalion 5th Marine Regiment.
"But then we can stop their command and control," he said. "Once we see where their fires are coming from, no problem, we just call in air support or artillery."
One Marine officer estimated U.S. and Iraqi forces controlled about 70 percent of the city, but the commander of the Iraqi force said he believed the figure was closer to 50 percent.
Most of Fallujah's 200,000 to 300,000 residents are believed to have fled the city before the U.S. assault. Civilian casualties in the attack are not known.