BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. forces sealed off a house in the northern city of Mosul where eight suspected Al Qaeda members died in a gunfight — some by their own hand to avoid capture. The White House said Sunday that it was "highly unlikely" that the terror leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was among the dead.
Insurgents, meanwhile, killed an American soldier and a Marine in separate attacks over the weekend, and a British soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in the south.
On Saturday, police Brig. Gen. Said Ahmed al-Jubouri said the raid was launched after a tip that top al-Qaida operatives, possibly including al-Zarqawi, were in the house in the northeastern part of the city.
During the intense gunbattle that followed, three insurgents detonated explosives and killed themselves to avoid capture, Iraqi officials said. Eleven Americans were wounded, the U.S. military said. Such intense resistance often suggests an attempt to defend a high-value target.
But Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman, said reports of al-Zarqawi's death were "highly unlikely and not credible."
American soldiers controlled the site Sunday, and residents said helicopters flew over the area throughout the day. Some residents said the tight security was reminiscent of the July 2003 operation in which Saddam Hussein's sons, Odai and Qusai, were killed in Mosul.
The elusive al-Zarqawi has narrowly escaped capture in the past. U.S. forces said they nearly caught him in a February 2005 raid that recovered his computer.
In May, the group said he was wounded in fighting and was taken out of the country for treatment. Within days, it reported he had returned — though there was never any independent confirmation that he was wounded.
The U.S. soldier killed Sunday near the capital was assigned to the Army's Task Force Baghdad and was hit by small arms fire, the military said. The Marine, assigned to Regimental Combat Team 8, 2nd Marine Division, died of wounds suffered the day before in Karmah, a village outside Fallujah to the west of the capital.
In the southern city of Basra, a roadside bomb killed a British soldier and wounded four others, the British Ministry of Defense said. The ministry said 98 British soldiers have died in Iraq.
The U.S. military also said Sunday that 24 people — including another Marine and 15 civilians — were killed the day before in an ambush on a joint U.S. Iraqi patrol in Haditha, 140 miles northwest of Baghdad in the volatile Euphrates River valley.
The three American deaths brought to at least 2,093 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Meanwhile, four women were killed Sunday night when gunmen stormed their home in a Christian district of eastern Baghdad, police said, adding that valuables were stolen and the motive for the attack appeared to have been robbery.
The latest deaths occurred at the end of a violent three-day period in which at least 140 Iraqi civilians died in a series of bombings and suicide attacks — most targeting Shiite Muslims.
The victims included 76 people who died Friday in near-simultaneous suicide bombings at two Shiite mosques in Khanaqin and 36 more killed the next day by a suicide car bomber who detonated his vehicle amid mourners at a Shiite funeral north of the capital.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Sunday on ABC's "This Week" that commanders' assessments will determine the pace of any military drawdown. About 160,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq as the country approaches parliamentary elections Dec. 15.
The Pentagon has said it plans to scale back troop strength to its pre-election baseline of 138,000, depending on conditions. Rumsfeld said the U.S.-led coalition continues to make progress in training Iraqi security forces, which he placed at 212,000.
Rumsfeld also said talk in the United States of a quick withdrawal from Iraq plays into the hands of the insurgents.
"The enemy hears a big debate in the United States, and they have to wonder maybe all we have to do is wait and we'll win. We can't win militarily. They know that. The battle is here in the United States," he told "Fox News Sunday."
In Cairo, Egypt, Iraq's president said Sunday he was ready for talks with anti-government opposition figures and members of Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party, and he called on the Sunni-led insurgency to lay down its arms and join the political process.
But President Jalal Talabani, attending an Arab League-sponsored reconciliation conference, insisted that the Iraqi government would not meet with Baath Party members who are participating in the Sunni-led insurgency.
"I am the president of Iraq and I am responsible for all Iraqis. If those who describe themselves as Iraqi resistance want to contact me, they are welcome," Talabani told reporters. "I want to listen to all Iraqis. I am committed to listen to them, even those who are criminals and are on trial."
Talabani made clear in his remarks, however, that he would talk with insurgents and "criminals" only if they put down their weapons.
In Baghdad, hundreds of Sunnis demanded an end to the torture of detainees and called for the international community to pressure Iraqi and U.S. authorities to ensure that such abuse does not occur.
Anger over detainee abuse has increased sharply since U.S. troops found 173 detainees at an Interior Ministry prison in Baghdad's Jadriyah neighborhood. The detainees, mainly Sunnis, were found malnourished and some had torture marks on their bodies. Sunni Arabs dominate the insurgent ranks.
Iraq's Shiite-led government has promised an investigation and punishment for anyone guilty of torture.