U.S. troops launched fresh raids Thursday around the northern city of Mosul, killing five suspected insurgents, in a bid to rein in guerrillas who have threatened to disrupt upcoming elections. Iraqi forces sealed off main routes into Baghdad a day after a wave of deadly car bombings.
One of Latin America's biggest construction companies also confirmed that a Brazilian engineer was missing after an ambush north of the capital that killed a British security guard and his Iraqi colleague.
A speech on an Islamic Web site, purportedly from the most feared terrorist in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, denounced Iraqi Shiites for fighting alongside U.S. troops — an apparent attempt to enflame sectarian tensions ahead of the Jan. 30 vote.
The elections have been embraced by majority Shiites but rejected by many Sunnis, who say the vote should be postponed because of the violence.
Army troops from the Stryker Brigade Combat Team killed five suspected insurgents in Mosul and provided security for Iraqi National Guard troops who raided a mosque and recovered a cache of weapons, the military said. U.S. troops also detained nine people and seized weapons in overnight sweeps in the city.
Later Thursday, insurgents shelled a hospital in Mosul where U.S. and Iraqi forces had taken up positions in an annex, hospital director Faris Hani said. Doctors and patients fled, and no casualties were reported.
Three Iraqi army soldiers were killed Thursday by a roadside bomb in the city of Samarra, 60 miles north of the capital, the U.S. military reported.
Elsewhere, major highways leading into Baghdad from the south and west were sealed off by Iraqi forces following a string of car bombs Wednesday. Alaa Mahmoud, an Iraqi National Guard captain at one roadblock, said he was under orders to prevent all vehicles from entering the capital.
Baghdad was generally quiet Thursday, the first day of the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha. Marking the start of the four-day festival, a cleric at a Baghdad mosque reflected on the effect violence has had on life in the now dreary and frightened capital.
"Baghdad is the city of science, city of kings, city of believers. It has now become the city of explosions and hideout of criminals," Mohammed al-Sumeidi said in his sermon.
In London, the British Ministry of Defense said several people were wounded Thursday in an explosion near a British base southwest of Basra. Al-Zarqawi's group claimed responsibility.
Insurgents fired at least six mortar shells or rockets in Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, and U.S. Marines returned fire, the military said. Two Iraqis were killed and two others wounded, according to hospital officials.
In Brazil, the Constructora Norberto Odebrecht SA of Sao Paulo announced that its engineer, who was not identified for security reasons, was probably kidnapped after an attack Wednesday on his convoy near Beiji, an insurgent-riddled city 155 miles north of Baghdad.
A British security guard working for Janusian Risk Management Ltd., and an Iraqi colleague were killed in the attack. Iraqi police initially reported the missing foreigner was Japanese.
A video showing eight Chinese construction workers, including two teenagers, surfaced this week, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry has sought help from Iraqi religious leaders to win their release.
An Islamic Web site linked to an Iraqi militant group claimed that a Briton and a Swede were kidnapped in Beiji and killed after they were found to be intelligence agents. British and Swedish officials were checking the claims.
The latest abductions marked a flareup in kidnappings of foreigners, which had declined following the U.S.-led assault last November on Fallujah, the insurgent bastion 40 miles west of Baghdad that was believed to have been the headquarters of the al-Qaida affiliate led by al-Zarqawi.
In the Web site speech, the speaker, identified as the Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi, berated Shiites for fighting their Sunni countrymen in Fallujah "with the blessing" of the most prominent Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
"They broke into the safe houses of God," the speaker said of Shiites, who comprise some 60 million of the population. "They defiled them and they hung the photos of their Satan, al-Sistani, on the walls and they spitefully wrote: 'Today, your land; tomorrow it will be your honor.'"
The 90-minute address, mostly dealing with religious themes, appeared aimed at stirring the morale of Iraqi insurgents following the loss of their Fallujah base.
The American assault on Fallujah was launched in large part to curb the insurgency enough to hold elections this month for a new 275-member National Assembly and legislatures in the country's 18 provinces.
Despite the fall of Fallujah, U.S. officials acknowledge that security remains precarious in Baghdad and three largely Sunni provinces. Those areas comprise more than 40 percent of the country's estimated 26 million people.