BAGHDAD, Iraq – A homicide bomber sped up to a U.S. military convoy outside Fallujah (search) and detonated an explosives-packed vehicle on Monday, killing seven Marines and three Iraqi soldiers, U.S. military officials said. It was the deadliest day for American forces in four months.
The force of the blast on a dusty stretch of wasteland nine miles north of Fallujah, a hotbed of Sunni insurgents, wrecked two Humvee vehicles and hurled the car's engine far from the site, witnesses and military officials said.
The bombing underscored the challenges U.S. commanders face in securing Fallujah and surrounding Anbar province, the heartland of a Sunni Muslim insurgency bent on driving coalition forces from the country.
U.S. forces have not patrolled in Fallujah since ending a three-week siege of the city in April that had been aimed at rooting out militiaman. Insurgents have only strengthened their hold on Fallujah since then.
Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry said medical tests confirmed that Iraqi authorities had once again mistakenly reported the capture of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein's (search) deputy, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri (search), putting a stop to two days of conflicting statements about his purported arrest.
Ministry spokesman Sabah Kadhim said unspecified tests had shown that a man being held in Iraqi custody was actually a relative of al-Douri who played only a minor role in Saddam's regime but was nevertheless wanted by authorities.
The reports on al-Douri — the most wanted Saddam-era henchman still at large — came as an embarrassment to interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's (search) government and exposed a lack of coordination among ministers competing for influence ahead of January elections.
With Monday's deaths, 990 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003, according to a count by The Associated Press based on Defense Department figures.
Three soldiers were also wounded Monday in a roadside bombing in eastern Baghdad.
After the homicide blast outside Fallujah, west of the capital, medical teams in helicopters ferried away the injured from the blazing wreckage and troops sealed off the area.
Fallujah hospital officials said four Iraqis were wounded by gunfire from U.S. troops near the site of the bombing, but the U.S. military had no confirmation.
The military condemned the bombing as "a desperate act of inhumanity" but insisted American troops will stay the course in Iraq until local forces are in a position to take over security operations. The slain Americans belonged to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (search).
Hours after the attack, an unmanned U.S. spy plane crashed in Fallujah. Afterward, jubilant residents picked up pieces of debris and danced in the streets, displaying pieces of the aircraft to reporters, witnesses said.
Since the Marine siege ended, gunmen have been using the city a base to manufacture car bombs and launch attacks on U.S. and Iraqi government forces. Fallujah has become a virtual no-go zone for U.S. troops, though American warplanes have repeatedly carried out airstrikes against alleged militant safe houses there.
Friday's attack resulted in the largest number of Americans killed in combat in a single day since May 2, when nine U.S. troops died in separate mortar attacks and roadside bombings in Baghdad, Ramadi and Kirkuk.
Seven troops were killed on two days last month, but in each case, there were six Americans and one foreign coalition member who died. On Aug. 21, six U.S. service members and one Polish soldier died in combat, and six were killed on Aug. 15, along with a Ukrainian soldier.
On Sunday, both Iraqi Minister of State Qassim Dawoud and a Defense Ministry spokesman publicly proclaimed al-Douri's capture. Later in the day, Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan said word of his arrest was "baseless."
Kadhim, the Interior Ministry spokesman, did not, however, identify the al-Douri relative in custody, nor did he say when or where he was captured.
"This will make the government lose credibility after its ministers and top officials appeared to be either liars or foolish," said Abdel Amir, an Iraqi political analyst and former editor of "Baghdad," the mouthpiece of Allawi's Iraqi National Accord party.
Amir said the conflicting claims reflected the rivalry within the government between ministers from different ethnic, religious and political groups, each keen to showcase his own achievements or embarrass rivals.
"It proved that they are very inexperienced and lack coordination on such important issues," added Mohammed Abdel Jabar al-Shabout, editor of Baghdad's Al-Sabah newspaper.
Also Monday, a Turkish driver taken hostage in Iraq was released by his captors, Turkey's Foreign Ministry said. The release came a day after the driver's company announced it would withdraw from Iraq in line with his captors' demands.
Militants have already forced more than a half a dozen firms to quit Iraq through a spree of kidnappings and beheadings of foreigners working in the country.
In other developments:
— Dozens of Iraqi troops surrounded the office of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the holy city of Najaf on Monday, but backed off amid pressure from Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, al-Sadr's supporters and witnesses said. Al-Sadr's Mahdi militia led a three-week uprising against U.S. and Iraqi forces in Najaf that left hundreds dead and much of the city devastated. The fighting ended with a peace deal more than a week ago.
— Gunmen shot and killed a Norwegian woman married to an Iraqi Kurd in the northern city of Kirkuk and slightly wounded her daughter, police said.
— U.S. and Iraqi national guardsmen clashed with insurgents in the northern city of Mosul, the U.S. military said. Hospital officials said three civilians were killed and nine others wounded in the fighting late Sunday.
— Iraqi police seized a car packed with explosives in Kirkuk that authorities believed was going to be used by a homicide bomber. The seizure came two days after a homicide car bombing outside a Kirkuk police academy killed 20 people and injured 50.