A roadside bomb killed a soldier in this center of anti-American militancy Friday, and another soldier from a division based in Baghdad was shot to death, a milestone that pushed the U.S. combat death toll higher than that of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Also, a large bomb that might have been intended for passing military vehicles in Baghdad was discovered and disarmed.
Political agitation against the U.S. presence in Iraq also grew, with an anti-occupation sermon from a Sunni Muslim cleric and a taped message from resistance guerrillas, both of which were broadcast across the Arab world. Graffiti praising ousted President Saddam Hussein also appeared to be flowering, showing a greater assertiveness by Baath Party loyalists.
More and more, Iraq has the feel of a country at the crossroads, with many Iraqis unsure whether it will become more calm and secure as a partnership between the occupation authority and a nascent governing council takes hold, or more violent as Hussein government remnants enlist new supporters for jihad, or holy war.
One day after the anniversary of the 1968 Baath Party takeover of Iraq passed without a major violent incident, a U.S. soldier with the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division died when a bomb exploded as the soldier's vehicle was passing by on patrol.
The soldier, whose identity was withheld pending notification of next of kin, died at the scene, according to soldiers with the brigade. No other troops were wounded in the attack, according to a public affairs officer with the unit.
The death was the 2nd Brigade's first in hostile action since April 8, the second day of the three-day battle for Baghdad that the brigade spearheaded.
A major with one of the brigade's battalions said soldiers at the scene Friday believed that someone posted within clear sight of the highway detonated the device as the vehicle passed. The attacker escaped.
The 3rd Infantry Division has been at the center of a controversy over how long tours of duty should last. Many 2nd Brigade soldiers expected to be relieved soon after capturing Baghdad. Instead, they were sent to Fallouja, where resistance to the occupation forces is strong. This week they were extended again, and in September they will have completed a full year in the Persian Gulf region.
The details of the second death from hostile fire Friday were sketchy. The military reported that a soldier from the 1st Armored Division had died after being shot about 5:30 p.m. but did not say where the shooting had taken place.
The deaths came as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, widely viewed as a chief architect of the war, was taking a short tour of Baghdad.
It brought to 149 the number of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq since the war began March 20, two more than the 147 who died in the 1991 war to eject the Iraqis from Kuwait. Thirty-five Americans have died at the hands of insurgents since President Bush declared an end to major combat operations May 1.
U.S. forces also had a close call with a bomb left alongside a major highway in Baghdad. A white burlap bag containing the sophisticated explosive device, which measured 3 feet by 1 foot and included a radio-activated detonator, was spotted around dawn on a median strip by Army engineers on a routine patrol, according to soldiers quoted by Associated Press.
Army Lt. Robertrel Sanchi of Columbus, Ohio, said the bomb, which was defused and later blown up, would have had a blast radius of 100 feet. There was no immediate explanation of why it was not detonated by whoever had set it.
One man who lives almost directly across from where the bomb was found criticized the militants who presumably put it there.
"This is a safe neighborhood," said Majib Abdullah, a 40-year-old engineer. "If there was anything, we would quickly inform [the Americans] about it."
But a neighbor, Ziad Mashadan, 43, who identified himself as a member of one of Hussein's former security services, applauded the would-be bomber.
"This is a legitimate right of people to attack the Americans," he said.
He said that life was better under Hussein. "If it is in my hands, I would drink [the Americans'] blood myself."
As the device was being disarmed, worshippers were gathering a short distance away at the Umm Qura Mosque, formerly known as the Mother of All Battles Mosque, and heard Sunni Sheik Harith Sulyman Dhari urge listeners to strengthen their spirit of holy struggle against the Americans.
"I call on all those who have confronted the occupation to go further in their stand of jihad," Dhari said in comments carried on the Al Jazeera TV satellite channel.
Viewers of another Arab-language satellite channel, Al Arabiya, saw a black-and-white tape of white-garbed militants, their heads wrapped in scarves, vowing to carry out a war against any foreigners occupying Iraq.
The TV station said the tape, from a group called the Muslim Youth, was sent to its Baghdad office. The tape said those who cooperate with the occupation authority "will be considered allies of America and Zionism and will face the destiny of death."
Watched in the lobby of the Sinbad hotel in central Baghdad, the tape drew scoffs from some of the patrons.
"Those are cowards," said William Murkus, a hotel employee. "They never did anything before when Saddam was in power. So it is useless to come on TV now and say these false things."
Nevertheless, signs on the street seemed to indicate that Hussein supporters are becoming emboldened in their use of graffiti.
"USA troops out" read one sign written in English in the town of Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad. Other slogans spotted Friday during a drive through the Baqubah area included "America is the enemy of God," "Saddam's Fedayeen — We are coming back again" and "Down George Bush, Long Live Saddam."
Anti-American agitation was less visible in Shiite Muslim areas, where there is no love lost for Hussein, a Sunni, and leaders have decided to give the United States the benefit of the doubt.
But there was criticism from the sect, too. In the southern town of Najaf, news reports quoted an influential Shiite cleric as saying a new governing council of 25 Iraqis, established a week ago, did not represent the citizens of the country.
"An Islamic army must be created and volunteers for this great army must come forward," the Reuters news agency quoted the cleric, Muqtader Sadr, as saying.
However, Shiite cleric Mahmoud Bayati made no mention of the U.S.-led occupation in his sermon Friday at the Rassoul Mosque in Baghdad. He explained afterward that as a follower of Shiite Ayatollah Ali Sistani, he is following Sistani's instructions to avoid political commentary.
Zucchino reported from Fallouja and Daniszewski from Baghdad. Researcher Mohammed Arrawi of The Times' Baghdad Bureau and Times wire services contributed to this report.
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times