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Iraq ambush takes biggest daily toll

Baghdad, June 24 (Reuters): Six British troops were killed and several were wounded in Iraq today in the biggest daily death toll sustained by US and British forces since March 23, three days after the start of the war to topple Saddam Hussein.

British and US forces came under a string of attacks on the toughest day of their battle to eliminate resistance by what they have branded as die-hard Saddam loyalists since the Iraqi leader fell on April 9.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s office said British forces suffered the casualties in two separate clashes near the city of Amarah, around 200 km north of Iraq’s British-controlled second city, Basra.

“We very much regret to confirm that in one incident six British personnel have been killed,” a spokesperson told reporters. He could give no further details.

In a second clash, he said, British troops on patrol came under fire. One was wounded and two vehicles were destroyed.

A rapid reaction force was sent by helicopter to the scene also came under attack on landing. Seven people were wounded, three of them seriously.

“All were extracted by helicopter and are receiving treatment,” the spokesperson said.

Defence secretary Geoff Hoon is expected to make a statement to parliament tomorrow, when details are clearer. “There are still investigations going on,” Blair’s spokesperson said.

In the previous bloodiest incident, the Pentagon identified seven US Marines as killed in a firefight near the southern city of Nassiriya on March 23, three days after US troops opened the war with an air strike on Baghdad.

In an attack on US forces, assailants launched gun and grenade raids on US troops in the volatile town of Falluja, 70 km west of Baghdad, hitting a power supply facility, witnesses said.

One Iraqi man was killed when the soldiers returned fire, they said. It was not clear if he was one of the attackers. There were no reports of US casualties.

Residents of Ramadi, 100 km west of Baghdad, reported another attack, but there was no word on casualties.

A total of 19 US soldiers have been killed by enemy fire in Iraq since US President George W. Bush declared major combat over on May 1. The latest died in a grenade attack on a military convoy south of Baghdad on Sunday.

Syria, meanwhile, remained silent on an American special forces raid against a convoy near its border in the hunt for Saddam and top aides.

A US officials said yesterday a number of Syrian border guards were wounded last week in an attack on a convoy of suspected high-profile members of Saddam’s toppled government, and that three Syrians were still being treated by US forces.

Syria, which has had often tense relations with Washington over Iraq and US charges that it supports terrorism, said it had no comment. Washington signalled there had been no official government contact with Damascus over the incident.

US officials said there was no indication Saddam or his sons Qusay and Uday — who head Washington’s most wanted list after the Iraq war — were killed in the attack. The US accuses Saddam loyalists of attacks on oilfields and pipelines crucial to Iraq's economic recovery.

A senior official from the US-led administration ruling Iraq, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), told a news conference security had been beefed up around pipelines.

“Remnants of the former regime want to send a message — that things are bad now. And they are seeking to sabotage the progress that we are making,” the official, who refused to be identified, said. “We are aware that small pockets are causing trouble.”

The attack on the convoy near the Syrian border and the capture two days earlier of Saddam’s secretary and most trusted aide, Abid Hamid Mahmud al-Tikriti, suggested the US was tightening the noose around Saddam, widely believed to be alive and hiding inside Iraq.

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