A suicide car bomber killed seven people when he struck a checkpoint at Baghdad's Green Zone early Tuesday, the second attack in two days at the district that houses Iraq's interim government and the U.S. Embassy, officials said.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said the trial of some of Iraq's former Baath Party leaders will begin next week. He didn't say if Saddam Hussein would be among them.
Many members of the former regime have been in jail for more than a year, and few have been able to meet with counsel. Saddam's Jordan-based lawyers say they have not seen the former dictator, arrested a year ago Monday.
Officials had given conflicting accounts about when the trials before the Iraqi Special Tribunal would begin. They have also said that Saddam might not be the first to be tried.
"I can now tell you clearly and precisely that, God willing, next week the trials of the symbols of the former regime will start, one by one so that justice can take its path in Iraq," Allawi told the interim National Council, without saying who would be tried.
Saddam and his 11 top lieutenants have been held for months in an undisclosed location, believed to be near the Baghdad International Airport, west of the capital. They appeared before the special tribunal in July to face preliminary charges from the former regime.
The U.S. military said Tuesday that two U.S. Marines were killed in action in western Iraq. This brought the number of Marines killed in the region in three days to 10.
A military statement said the two Marines died Monday "while conducting security and stabilization operations" in the vast Anbar province west of Baghdad, which includes the battleground cities of Fallujah and Ramadi.
Seven other Marines died in action Sunday in Anbar and a 10th was killed on Saturday. The U.S. military did not provide details of their death, but they brought to nearly 1,300 the number of American troops killed in Iraq since the invasion in March 2003.
The Pentagon has announced that troop numbers will rise from 138,000 to 150,000 before the Jan. 30 national elections, which many Iraqis fear could be targeted by militants opposed to the occupation and bent on derailing the political process.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrived Tuesday in Iraq for a morale-boosting visit to the troops. Celebrities including actor Robin Williams, former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway and sportscaster Leeann Tweeden accompanied him.
"Our troop levels will be at 150,000 for the elections and a little bit after," Myers said, adding that events would determine whether those numbers will be scaled down after the ballot.
Myers predicted that last month's U.S.-led offensive to retake the western rebel stronghold of Fallujah would undercut the rebellion by denying the guerrillas a sanctuary from which they could launch attacks with relative impunity.
"They will try to move to other locations but I don't think they are going to find any location as satisfactory as Fallujah was for their operational planning and facilitation of what they were doing."
Despite repeated forecasts in the past that successes on the battlefield and the arrests of most of Saddam's top aides would weaken the insurgency, the number of attacks on U.S. troops and the interim government's security forces has not decreased.
About 550 U.S. soldiers died in the first year after the invasion was launched; almost 750 troops have died in the nine months that followed.
Sunday's blast at the Green Zone killed seven people and wounded at least 13 people, said Dr. Hassan AbdelSatar of Yarmouk Hospital.
Police Lt. Rafid Abid said the attack was carried out by a suicide car bomber.
A mushroom-shaped cloud of black smoke rose from where the blast occurred at 8:15 a.m. A policemen said the suicide car bombing struck near the site of Monday's blast. No U.S. troops were injured in either incident.
On Monday, a suicide bomber killed 13 and injured 15 people at the same location near the Harthiyah gate on the western edge of the zone, which has been repeatedly targeted by bombings and mortar and missile attacks since it became the headquarters of the occupation authorities in May 2003.
The U.S. Embassy and several other missions are located in the zone, which occupies an area of four square miles on the west bank of the Tigris River. The area, comprising Saddam's palace and other administrative buildings, is a virtual fortress encircled by miles of 12-foot-high barricades, its gates guarded by U.S. Bradley fighting vehicles. The complex is off-limits to the public.
Several of Baghdad's main arteries now dead-end straight into it, cut off by a triple layered sprawl of concertina wire, impassable concrete blast walls and sandbagged guard towers.
Also in Baghdad on Tuesday, unidentified gunmen shot to death Mousa Jabar, a commander in the al-Mahdi army of firebrand anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, officials said. Jabar was killed in a drive-by shooting in Baghdad's Sadr City, a stronghold of the militia group.
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