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Reports Differ On Iraq Soccer Field Blast

A car bomb exploded near a park popular with young soccer players, killing at least 18 boys in a city west of Baghdad known as a center of the Sunni insurgency, police and Iraqi state television said Tuesday.

But the reports were complicated by a separate announcement by the U.S. military that 30 civilians and one Iraqi soldier were injured in a "controlled detonation" of explosives southeast of the same city, Ramadi. No deaths occurred, the military said.

It was not immediately clear if there were two separate blasts or whether there were disputes over the casualty toll from the same explosion.

However, the BBC reports that the chief American military spokesman in Iraq, Lt Colonel Christopher Garver, later said he thought there had been "two separate incidents" in Ramadi.

The blast outside the park occurred in central Ramadi, a hotbed of the Sunni insurgency, near an area popular for soccer. The victims were boys aged 10 to 15, police said in the city, about 70 miles west of Baghdad.

The bomb-rigged car blew apart in the afternoon while the boys were playing, police said.

It was not immediately known if the children were the intended targets, but young people are often caught in Iraq's daily bloodshed. On Sunday, more than 40 people — mostly college students — were killed in a bombing outside a mostly Shiite college in Baghdad.

Southwest of the capital, a roadside bomb blast killed three U.S. soldiers Tuesday, the military said.

The soldiers, assigned to a unit based in Baghdad, were killed by an improvised explosive device, or IED, a makeshift mine that is the deadliest killer of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. The troops' names were not immediately released pending notification of relatives.

Meanwhile, U.S. and Iraqi forces staged raids in Baghdad's main Shiite militant stronghold Tuesday as part of politically sensitive forays into areas loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Troops have held back on broad sweeps through the teeming Sadr City slums since a major security operation began earlier this month targeting militant factions and sectarian death squads that have ruled Baghdad's streets.

Al-Sadr withdrew his powerful Mahdi Army militia from checkpoints and bases under intense government pressure to let the neighbor-by-neighbor security sweeps move ahead. But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and others have opposed extensive U.S.-led patrols through Sadr City, fearing a violent backlash could derail the security effort.

The pre-dawn raids appeared to highlight a strategy of pinpoint strikes in Sadr City rather than the flood of soldiers sent into some Sunni districts.

At least 16 people were arrested after U.S.-Iraqi commandos — using concussion grenades — stormed six homes, police said.

The U.S. military said the raids targeted "the leadership of several rogue" Mahdi Army cells that "direct and perpetrate sectarian murder" — an apparent reference to Shiite gangs accused of carrying out execution-style slayings and torture on Sunni rivals.

In other developments:

  • The United States and the Iraqi government are launching a new diplomatic initiative to invite Iran and Syria to a "neighbors meeting" on stabilizing Iraq, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday. The move reflects a change of approach by the Bush administration, which previously had resisted including Iran and Syria in diplomatic talks on stabilizing Iraq.
  • In Baghdad, a bomb in a plastic bag at a restaurant killed at least three people and injured 13. A suicide bomber struck an area filled with restaurants and ice cream parlors, killing at least five people and injuring 13, police said. Earlier, a bomb-rigged car exploded in a parking lot, killing at least two people, police said. Near the northern city of Mosul, a suicide bomber struck a factory, killing at least four people. A separate suicide car bombing in Mosul killed at least six policemen and injured 38 police and civilians, said police said police Col. Aidan al-Jubouri.
  • The No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq said Tuesday that execution-style killings have fallen sharply in Baghdad since the security crackdown began this month. Figures compiled by The Associated Press from police reports show that the number of bullet-riddled bodies found in the streets this month totaled 628 as of Monday night, down from the 1,079 found in January and the 1,379 discovered in December. "We have seen a decrease in the past three weeks — a pretty radical decrease," Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno told reporters. "I'm not willing to draw any conclusions yet though because it's only (been) three weeks."
  • The U.S. spy chief says the security and political trends in Iraq are moving "in a negative direction." Director of National Intelligence John McConnell says sectarian violence has become "self-sustaining." He told the Senate Armed Services Committee that unless efforts to change that trend "gain real traction," the situation will continue to deteriorate.
  • An Army medic accused of fatally shooting a fellow soldier during a night of heavy drinking in Iraq pleaded guilty Tuesday to unpremeditated murder and other charges. Spc. Chris Rolan, 23, initially had been charged with premeditated murder in the Nov. 16, 2005, death of Pvt. Dylan Paytas, 20, while the two were serving with Fort Benning's 3rd Infantry Brigade in Iraq.
  • Iraqi authorities have arrested a suspect in the attempted assassination of Shiite Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, an aide said. The aide said the arrest was made after reviewing security camera video from Monday's blast, which ripped through an awards ceremony at the ministry of public works and killed at least 10 people. Abdul-Mahdi received leg injuries and was briefly hospitalized.
  • Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, remained in a Jordan hospital but no medical tests were planned, according to the Iraqi ambassador. "He's in good shape, fully aware and doing well," Ambassador Saad al-Hayyani told The Associated Press. "There are no tests planned today." The ambassador declined to say whether Talabani would be discharged from the King Hussein Medical City in Amman.

    The U.S. military statement about the operations in Sadr City said the raids targeted "the leadership of several rogue" Mahdi Army cells that "direct and perpetrate sectarian murder" — an apparent reference to Shiite gangs accused of carrying out execution-style slayings and torture on Sunni rivals.

    "My sons and wife were very terrified," complained Muhand Mihbas, 30, who said his brother and six cousins were taken in the sweeps. "Does the security plan mean arresting innocent people and scaring civilians at night?"

    At a news conference, Odierno, the Pentagon's No. 2 commander in Iraq, declined to comment on whether there were special tactics for Sadr City. "We will go after anyone who we feel is working against the government of Iraq," he said.

    U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell told Al-Arabiya television that forces "will increase our operations in the coming days," but noted that the security crackdown in the capital should continue until at least October.

    Added Odierno: "We will keep at this until the people feel safe in their neighborhoods."

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