BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A top U.S. general said on Thursday insurgents in Iraq were using crude chemical bombs in a new campaign to create instability, as U.S. and Iraqi forces stepped up a security crackdown in Baghdad.
Two bombs with chlorine gas have killed up to 11 people this week. The blasts, one in Baghdad and the other north of the capital, caused toxic fumes that have made scores more sick.
“What they’re trying to do is ... adapt in such ways where they can continue to create instability,” Lieutenant-General Raymond Odierno, day-to-day commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, told reporters at the Pentagon in a live link-up.
“That’s what they’re doing, especially with these chlorine IEDs (improvised explosive devices),” he said, adding U.S. forces had found chlorine cylinders in a car bomb factory near the rebellious western city of Falluja on Tuesday.
Chlorine gas was used as a weapon in World War One but its use in guerrilla attacks in Iraq has particular resonance for Iraqis. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons on Kurdish areas in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war.
President Bush is sending 21,500 more troops to Iraq in an effort to drive militants out of Baghdad and to try to stabilize Anbar province, heart of the Sunni Arab insurgency. U.S. forces in Iraq number some 141,000.
In the city of Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, U.S. forces killed at least 12 insurgents and wounded three others in a six-hour clash involving air strikes, the U.S. military said.
Residents in Ramadi said three buildings were destroyed. A civil defense official and an ambulance driver, both of whom declined to be identified, said as many as 26 people were killed, including some women and children.
A Reuters photographer saw the bodies of an infant and a young boy. The battle started on Wednesday evening.
“We have no reports of civilian casualties and there were no coalition casualties,” said Lieutenant Shawn Mercer, a spokesman for U.S. Marines operating in western Iraq.
U.S. and Iraqi troops were on alert as Iraq marked the anniversary of the bombing of a Shi’ite Muslim shrine in the city of Samarra that unleashed a wave of sectarian violence and pushed the country to the brink of all-out civil war.
There were no major attacks but sectarian tension was fueled by accusations from a woman in the northern city of Tal Afar that members of Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated forces raped her.
The allegations came two days after a 20-year-old Sunni Arab woman in Baghdad accused police of raping her, sparking a political furor that bared bitter sectarian divisions between Iraq’s majority Shi’ites and Sunnis, once-dominant under Saddam.
The leader of al Qaeda’s wing in Iraq vowed militants would avenge the Sunni woman’s alleged rape, according to an audio tape posted on the Internet on Thursday.
The speaker, identified as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, also known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, said more than 300 militants had asked to go on suicide missions after hearing reports of the rape.
A police source said three people were killed in a bomb attack in Baghdad on Wednesday in which chlorine gas was used, and that 35 others were taken to hospital. An Interior Ministry source said six were killed and 73 wounded or made ill.
“We were in the shops working when all of a sudden it exploded and we saw yellow fumes. Everybody was suffocating,” one man, who declined to be named, told Reuters TV.
On Tuesday, a truck rigged with explosives blew up north of Baghdad, killing at least five people and releasing a cloud of chlorine gas that made nearly 140 others sick, police said.
Odierno said at the car bomb factory near Falluja U.S. forces found vehicles in various stages of preparation to be used as bombs, as well as materials to devise or enhance explosives such as fertilizer and chlorine cylinders.
He said U.S. forces hunting insurgents responsible for shooting down U.S. helicopters had detained two members of a militant cell. He gave no other details.
On Wednesday, insurgents shot down a Black Hawk helicopter with nine people on board north of Baghdad. No one was killed. It was the eighth helicopter to go down in Iraq in a month.
Additional reporting by Aseel Kami, Ross Colvin and Ibon Villelabeitia in Baghdad and Kristin Roberts in Washington
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