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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. aircraft and army snipers killed 13 gunmen north of Baghdad on Friday in fierce fighting that erupted as troops closed in to capture an al Qaeda cell leader, the U.S. military said.
The U.S. military this week announced the launch of a major new offensive targeting al Qaeda and Shi'ite militias, who they fear will step up attacks ahead of a key report on the Iraq war due to be presented to the U.S. Congress in September.
It launched an operation east of the town of Tarmiya on Friday targeting an al Qaeda leader "who provides guidance to senior terrorist leaders".
After being shot at from several buildings, troops had called in air strikes that forced out four gunmen, including a woman wearing a ski mask, who were then killed by aircraft and sniper fire, the U.S. military said. Nine more gunmen were killed during the fighting.
"Despite coalition forces' appeals for the terrorists to send out women and children to be taken to safety, a boy was killed in a building with an armed terrorist who had engaged the ground forces," a military statement said.
A day earlier U.S. forces in Tarmiya attacked a Sunni mosque in the town after machinegun and rocket-propelled grenade fire on their combat outpost killed one soldier. More than 3,700 U.S. soldiers have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
U.S. President George W. Bush has sent an extra 30,000 troops to Iraq to help clamp down sectarian violence between Shi'ite Muslims and Sunni Arabs and buy Iraq's divided leaders time to reach a political accommodation.
U.S. military commanders plan to maintain the current level of about 160,000 troops in Iraq until next year and then start to draw down, a U.S. general said on Friday.
Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno said security in Iraq had improved in recent months as the result of the "surge" in U.S. forces but the gains did not yet represent enduring trends. Much would depend on Iraqis' ability to build on that progress, he said.
Moderate Kurdish and Shi'ite blocs formed a new alliance on Thursday to support Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government in an attempt to break a political deadlock that has paralyzed decision-making and stalled agreement on crucial legislation.
But the alliance, which includes the two main Kurdish parties in the government, the powerful Shi'ite Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and Maliki's Shi'ite Dawa party, does not include the biggest Sunni Arab party, the Iraqi Islamic Party.
The party is part of the Accordance Front, the Sunni Arab political bloc that withdrew from the government earlier this month in protest at Maliki's failure to address any of their demands for a greater say in government.
In a statement on Friday, the Iraqi Islamic Party said the solution to Iraq's political crisis was not through making new alliances "but by achieving national consensus on the issues still dividing Iraqis".
Those deep divisions have sparked violence that has killed tens of thousands, forced 2 million people to flee the country and displaced hundreds of thousands more internally.
Suicide truck bombers on Tuesday leveled scores of houses in two villages in northwestern Iraq that were home to members of the country's minority Yazidi sect in a devastating attack that stunned even war-weary Iraqis.
Two days after the attack, with clearing of bomb-flattened houses still continuing, there was still no definite death toll. Iraqi and U.S. officials gave widely differing figures.
Even taking the lowest estimate, however, would make it the worst attack in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
The spokesman for U.S. troops in northern Iraq, Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Donnelly, said U.S. soldiers at the scene put the death toll at 212, with hundreds displaced.
The governor of Nineveh province, Duraid Kashmoula, told Reuters the toll was around 200 dead, with many still missing.
The health minister of neighboring Kurdistan, Zairyan Othman, said 250 people had been killed and 250 wounded. Dr Kifah Mohammed, head of Sinjar hospital, said 344 had died.
Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim and Ross Colvin in Baghdad and Andrew Gray in Washington