Three American soldiers have been killed in combat operations in the western province of Anbar, the U.S. military said Friday.
The military statement says only that the three died while conducting combat operations in Anbar Province on Thursday, reports CBS News correspondent Cami McCormick. Earlier this week in Ramadi, also in Anbar, U.S. forces came under attack from insurgents and a lengthy gun battle followed. Warplanes were brought in to target several buildings there.
The U.S. military also said it was investigating reports of civilian casualties in fighting in Ramadi, the volatile capital of Anbar province.
Meanwhile, a suspected al Qaeda-linked insurgent leader accused of financing attacks and recruiting fighters was captured in southern Iraq, Iraqi police said Friday.
In other developments:
Issa Abdul-Razzaq Ahmed, the suspected al Qaeda leader, who was detained during a raid Thursday on a house in central Basra, has been traveling to neighboring countries to collect funds for militant operations in Iraq, provincial police commander Gen. Mohammed al-Moussawi said.
He also said the suspect, a 22-year-old Sunni, was on the Interior Ministry's most-wanted list and was accused of being a major figure in recruiting fighters. Police also found lists with the names of other wanted militants, maps and propaganda CDs.
"Working under the guise of a businessman, he has been shuttling between Syria and the United Arab Emirates to collect funds for the terrorists in Iraq," al-Moussawi said.
The announcement of the capture took on added significance, coming just days after Britain said it would withdraw 1,600 troops from the area in the coming months with hopes the Iraqis can take over their own security.
Basra, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, and the region around it are predominantly Shiite and have seen little of the sectarian violence that has beset the capital, although rival Shiite militant factions often clash and Sunni insurgents maintain a presence.
Spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, meanwhile, said the military was investigating reports of civilian casualties during intense fighting between American troops and Sunni insurgents in Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad.
A six-hour battle broke out Wednesday evening after insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades attacked U.S. troops from nearby buildings. Marine spokesman 1st Lt. Shawn Mercer said 12 insurgents were killed and there were no civilian casualties reported; Iraqi authorities said the dead included women and children.
The military said several buildings were damaged when the Americans responded with "precision guided munitions" that ended the fight.
However, Dr. Hafidh Ibrahim of the Ramadi Hospital said the bodies of 26 people, including four women and children, were pulled from the rubble of three houses damaged in the fighting.
Photographs made available to The Associated Press showed the bodies of two small boys wrapped in one blanket. Other photos showed four or five bodies covered by blankets, and several men clearing rubble.
In the capital's Abu Hanifa mosque, Sunni Islam's holiest shrine in Iraq, al-Obeidi demanded that women be treated with respect during the operations.
"No arrests of women, no rape of women and no nighttime raids," he demanded.
Another Sunni imam, Sheik Jamaleddin al-Kobeisi, preaching at al-Shawaf mosque in the capital's Yarmouk district, sought to steer his sermon from the Shiite-Sunni divide, saying Sunnis did not wish to see the rape allegations fuel sectarian violence and only wanted justice for the victims.
"The proud among us believe that killing all of Iraq's men is easier to accept than violating the honor of one Iraqi woman," he told worshippers.
Both rape allegations were made in TV interviews — unusual in Iraq, where the crime is rarely reported or discussed — and they have increased pressure on the Iraqi government in its fight against the enduring Sunni insurgency and sectarian violence.
The al Qaeda in Iraq leader, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, also known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, purportedly has called on his followers to step up attacks on Iraqi security forces to avenge the alleged rapes in Baghdad and the northern town of Tal Afar near the Syrian border.
"Go ahead with Allah's blessing and engulf their checkpoints in fire, destroy their homes, and spill their blood to flow as streams," he said in an audiotape released Thursday.
He also claimed 300 followers have volunteered for suicide missions within hours of hearing news of the alleged rape in Baghdad, which the woman said took place in a police garrison.
The authenticity of the tape could not be immediately verified, but the voice sounded like al-Masri's and it appeared on Web sites commonly used by the militant groups.
At least six groups, including al Qaeda in Iraq, have called for revenge since the first rape claim was made Monday, according to IntelCenter, a U.S. group that tracks extremist messages.
The rape allegations by Sunni Arab women, particularly that of a 20-year-old who said she was raped by three policemen last weekend, have angered Sunnis and threatened to undermine the reputation of the Iraqi forces that Washington hopes can soon take over from U.S. and allied forces so they can go home.