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U.S. attacks suspected insurgent hideouts

U.S. warplanes, tanks and artillery repeatedly hit at Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's terror network in the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah on Saturday, while two British Muslim leaders came to Baghdad to try to persuade his followers to release a British hostage.

The strikes in Fallujah targeted two buildings where militants were allegedly meeting and a cluster of rebel-built fortifications used to mount attacks on nearby Marine positions, the U.S. military said. Doctors said 16 people were killed and 37 wounded.

In other violence, an American soldier was reported killed by a bomb Saturday, and the U.S. military said four Marines died in separate incidents Friday. The Marines were involved in a security operation in Anbar province, which includes Fallujah, Ramadi and other places that see frequent clashes between U.S. forces and insurgents. In Baghdad, gunmen fired on a vehicle carrying Iraqi National Guard applicants, killing six people, police said. It was the latest attack in a militant campaign that targets Iraqi security units and recruits in hopes of undermining U.S.-backed efforts to build an Iraqi force capable of taking over security from American troops.

The National Guard clashed with unidentified gunmen in Haswa, south of the capital, injuring four people, hospital officials said. The shooting lasted about a half hour, witnesses said.

Meanwhile, five mortar shells struck the Iraqi Oil Ministry in Baghdad, shattering windows and causing minor damage to the building, ministry spokesman Assem Jihad said. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Several explosions rocked the Iraqi capital late Saturday, but it was not immediately clear what caused the blasts. In Fallujah, explosions lit up the night sky for hours before dawn Saturday and at least two buildings in the city center were wrecked, witnesses said. The Fallujah mosque switched on its loudspeakers and clerics chanted prayers to rally the city's residents. Doctors said eight people were killed and 15 wounded.

Explosions rocked the city again after dark Saturday. Eight people were killed and 22 injured in the blasts, said Dr. Ahmed Khalil at Fallujah General Hospital. The U.S. military could not immediately be reached for comment on the blasts.

American troops have not entered Fallujah since ending a three-week siege of the city in April that killed hundreds but have staged repeated attacks on sites the U.S. military described as being used by Zarqawi's followers.

In a statement released on the Internet, Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad group said the death of its spiritual leader in a U.S. missile strike this month had only increased its determination to fight the United States and its allies in Iraq.

The statement said the beheading of two American hostages last week was proof that the group's campaign was not affected by the killing of Sheik Abu Anas al-Shami, apparently when a U.S. missile hit his car in a western Baghdad suburb Sept. 17.

"The beheading of the two Americans was our first signal that we will continue and will not be deterred," said the statement, which was posted on a Web site known for carrying communiques from Islamic militants.

Two senior officials of the Muslim Council of Britain arrived in Iraq's capital on Saturday to try to win the freedom of Kenneth Bigley, a British civil engineer who was kidnapped Sept. 16 with the two Americans who were slain.

Zarqawi's group claimed responsibility for the abduction and demanded the release of female Iraqi prisoners at American-controlled prisons _ a move U.S. officials have ruled out.

"We will do everything to contact them (the captors) while we are here," said Daud Abdullah, assistant secretary-general of the British council.

He conceded, however, that his delegation had not arranged any meetings with Iraqi religious or political leaders and did not know whether they would be able to reach the kidnappers.

"The message is simple, it's a humanitarian one . . . he (Bigley) was a noncombatant, Islam does not endorse the capture of noncombatants, let alone the killing of them," Abdullah said.

A posting on an Islamic Internet site Saturday claimed Zarqawi's followers had killed Bigley, but the Foreign Office in London said the claim was not credible.

The little-known site tends to pick up claims from other sites and was among the many to carry video footage of the beheadings of the two American civil engineers _ Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley _ taken hostage with Bigley. In Cairo, a spokesman for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said the government was working through religious and tribal contacts in hopes of winning the release of six Egyptian telecommunications workers abducted with four Iraqis in two incidents.

Also Saturday, a U.S. soldier was sentenced to a 25-year term Saturday after a court-martial convicted him in the death of an Iraqi National Guard member in May, the military said.

Spc. Federico Merida pleaded guilty to murder during the trial in Tikrit, a city north of Baghdad.

Merida, whose age and hometown were not given, also received a dishonorable discharge and reduction in rank.