BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) — Insurgents attacked British troops at
a checkpoint in central Iraq yesterday, killing three and wounding
eight in a suicide bomb and mortar barrage aimed at soldiers sent
to the high-risk area to free U.S. forces for an assault on the
militant stronghold Fallujah.

U.S. troops pounded Fallujah with airstrikes and artillery fire,
softening up militants ahead of the expected assault. Loudspeakers
at Fallujah mosques blared out Quranic verses and shouts of
“Allahu akbar,” or “God is great,” during
the assault, residents said.

The three British soldiers were from the Black Watch regiment,
which was moved last month from relatively quiet southern Iraq to
the dangerous area just south of Baghdad.

An Iraqi interpreter also was killed in the attack, British
officials said. Britain’s armed forces minister, Adam Ingram,
said in London that the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber
in a vehicle and that the British checkpoint also came under mortar
fire.

The deaths bring the number of British troops killed in Iraq to
73. It was the worst single combat loss for the British since three
Royal Military Police were killed in the southern city of Basra in
August 2003.

A suicide car bomber also targeted a U.S. Marine convoy near
Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, but only the attacker died in the
explosion, U.S. officials said.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed to a U.S. request to
move British troops to central Iraq despite considerable opposition
at home, even within his Labour Party.

Scottish Nationalist Party spokesman Angus Robertson warned that
the deaths would have “profound implications” for
public opinion in Scotland, where the Black Watch regiment is
recruited.

U.S. and Iraqi officials want to clear insurgents from Fallujah
and other Sunni Muslim areas north and west of Baghdad so elections
can be held by the end of January. American officials plan to use a
mixed American and Iraqi force to storm Fallujah, 40 miles west of
Baghdad, if interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi gives the
go-ahead.

American aircraft were in action over Fallujah early yesterday,
blasting militant positions in northeastern and southeastern parts
of the city, the military said. U.S. batteries later fired two to
three dozen heavy artillery shells at insurgent positions, the
military said.

Militants and U.S. forces also clashed briefly in Ramadi, but no
U.S. casualties were reported.

An Iraqi known for cooperating with Americans was killed near
Ramadi, police said. The assailants stopped a car carrying Sheik
Bezei Ftaykhan, ordered the driver to leave and pumped about 30
bullets into the sheik’s body, police said.

The deteriorating security situation prompted the humanitarian
organization Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders,
to announce it was closing its operations in Iraq. CARE
International withdrew from the country after its national
director, Margaret Hassan, was kidnapped last month.

U.S. officials say contacts are still under way for a peaceful
solution to the crisis in Fallujah, which worsened after Marines
abandoned their three-week siege of the city last April, enabling
Islamic militants to take control there.

In preparation for the planned offensive, Iraqi authorities have
put together a team of Iraqi administrators to run the city after
the fighting, Marine Maj. Jim West said yesterday.

West said $75 million has been earmarked to repair the city. The
strategy is similar to one used when U.S. troops restored
government authority in the Shiite holy city Nafaj last August
after weeks of fighting with militiamen.

Elsewhere, an Iraqi National Guard patrol was attacked by a car
bomb in Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad, killing three
people and wounding 15, Iraqi hospital officials said.

A suicide car bomber also killed three and wounded nine when his
explosive-laden vehicle barreled into city government offices in
Dujail, 50 miles north of the capital, police said.

As the wave of foreign kidnappings continued, Al-Jazeera
television aired video of three Jordanian truck drivers seized by a
militant group called Army of Islam. They were among seven truckers
who came under attack Tuesday near Fallujah, the Jordanian Truckers
Association said. One driver was killed, two others are missing and
one reached Jordan.

More than 170 foreigners have been kidnapped and more than 30 of
them have been killed in Iraq since Saddam Hussein’s regime
fell in April 2003.

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