Three U.S. Soldiers Killed in Iraq

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Roadside bombs hit two U.S. Army convoys southwest of Baghdad on Thursday, killing a total of three soldiers, the military said.

In northern Iraq gunmen kidnapped 10 people in two villages in northern Iraq, but U.S. and Iraqi forces saved seven of them in a gunbattle, police said.

In another development, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, ordered all Shiite mosques to close for three days in a town in southern Iraq where a local Sunni Arab leader was killed.

The hostage drama occurred in two mostly Sunni Arab villages near Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.

The attackers arrived in several cars and pickup trucks about 6:30 a.m. and seized 10 young men from their homes, police said. But local sheiks and citizens confronted them, police said.

Iraqi and U.S. forces rushed to the scene and fierce fighting took place, police said. Five gunmen were wounded and 36 captured, and three villagers injured, police said in a statement.

Seven of the hostages were freed, but one vehicle escaped with the other three, police said.

The identities of the kidnappers were unclear, but they were believed to be a Shiite death squad. Police said some of the gunmen belonged to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army.

The captors wore fake military uniforms or civilian clothes and some carried false Health Ministry identification cards, police said.

CountryWatch: Iraq

The three U.S. soldiers died when roadside bombs hit two separate U.S. Army convoys southwest of Baghdad, the military said. The U.S. command also announced that another U.S. soldier died two days ago from non-combat related wounds suffered near Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad. The statement said the cause of death was being investigated.

The four deaths raised to at least 2,429 the number of members of the U.S. military who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

In Haqlaniyah, 140 miles northwest of Baghdad, insurgents armed with guns and a mortar round attacked U.S. Marines from an abandoned hotel Thursday, the U.S. military said. Coalition forces responded with small arms, a shoulder-fired rocket and an air strike on the hotel. The fighting left a civilian child with minor injuries, the military said, but no casualties were reported among the soldiers or insurgents.

Al-Sistani's order followed the killing of Sunni imam Sheik Khaled Ali Obeid al-Saadoun and two of his associates as they left a mosque after evening prayers in the mostly Sunni town of Zubayr in the southern Iraq.

Al-Sistani ordered Shiite mosques in the town to close from Thursday through Saturday to protest the killings as well as other attacks against Sunnis in mostly Shiite Basra province.

On Wednesday, President Jalal Talabani urged Iraq's feuding factions to unite against surging crime and terrorism. Talabani said nearly 1,091 people were killed in Baghdad alone last month, and his office said the figure came from the Baghdad Central Morgue.

However, Dr. Riyadh Abdul Amer, the Ministry of Health official whose office maintains morgue records, said his staff misinterpreted the president's request and gave him figures for all deaths in the Baghdad area for the month of April including natural causes.

The Health Ministry said 952 people — most of them civilians — died nationwide last month in "terrorist" violence: 686 civilians, 190 insurgents, 54 policemen and 22 Iraqi soldiers.

In Thursday's violence, a Shiite history professor, Widad al-Shimri, and her 7-year-old daughter were slain as they drove Thursday through the city of Baqouba, police said.

Five municipal street cleaners were killed and two others wounded in a blast in western Baghdad, police 1st Lt. Thaeir Mahmoud said.