| Iraqis look at the damaged mosque in Falluja. (Reuters)
Baghdad, July 1 (Reuters): Six more American soldiers were wounded in Iraq today and a fatal blast at a mosque fuelled Muslim anger toward US forces, all within hours of defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld insisting Iraq was no new Vietnam.
Three soldiers were hurt near Baghdad’s university when a makeshift bomb exploded by their vehicle, a military spokesman said. Their Iraqi interpreter was missing. Bystanders saw troops drag four badly wounded people from the burning wreck.
Three others were wounded in two separate grenade attacks.
In Falluja, a Sunni stronghold near Baghdad where Americans and Iraqis have been involved in fatal clashes, a US commander denied troops had caused the overnight explosion which locals said killed eight people, including clerics, at a mosque. But thousands of Iraqis chanted angry slogans as they buried the dead: “America is the enemy of God! Avenge the killings!”
Exactly two months after US President George W. Bush declared a formal end to the major combat operations that ousted Saddam, troops are hunting what Rumsfeld said were “terrorist” remnants of Saddam's Sunni-dominated Baath party administration.
Operation Desert Sidewinder began on Sunday with infantry backed by aircraft and armour. Battles would “go on for some time”, Rumsfeld said. But he hit out at suggestions that almost daily attacks and the deaths of 22 US and six British soldiers since May 1 meant Iraq was sliding into prolonged guerrilla war.
Rumsfeld insisted this was no new Vietnam: “It isn’t. It’s a different time. It’s a different era. It’s a different place.”
Echoing his confidence, Paul Bremer, the US administrator in Iraq, dismissed recent attacks as the predictable and increasingly desperate response of die-hard Saddam loyalists to American success in winning the support of the Iraqi people.
“Those few remaining individuals who have refused to fit into the new Iraq are becoming more and more desperate,” Bremer said. “They are alienating the rest of the population.”
He dismissed suggestions that the violence reflected a wider discontent with US rule and insisted his provisional authority was making great strides in restoring services and sovereignty.
A Reuters reporter at the scene of the central Baghdad attack near al-Mustansiriyah University saw a US vehicle and an Iraqi car on fire shortly after the mid-morning blast.
“We were sitting at a cafeteria near the university when we heard a large explosion,” said bystander Ya’aroub Abdulillah.
A US spokesman said an improvised device blew up. Some witnesses said the Iraqi car exploded next to the American vehicle while others said a rocket-propelled grenade was fired.
“These explosions are a message to the Americans because they have done nothing for the Iraqi people. There will be more and more explosions,” said Mohammad Owdeh, a local resident. Two soldiers in a convoy were wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade near Baghdad airport, the US military said. Another grenade attack, in the town of Samarra, hurt a sixth soldier.
In Falluja, 50 km west of the capital, in an area dominated by Iraq’s Sunni minority, the cause of the powerful late night explosion that damaged the mosque remained a mystery. The local US commander denied allegations by residents that a US aircraft or rocket caused the damage.
“There was no US warplane involved. There was no artillery from US troops. It was simply an explosion inside a building adjacent to the mosque,” Colonel Joseph Disalvo said.
Local people said the buildings had not been used to store explosives.
Reuters correspondents saw bodies being pulled from debris around the mosque and several local people said eight had died.
Reporters watched people carry three wooden coffins from the rubble as well as a body wrapped in a blanket and body parts.
Bremer's Authority is struggling to restore Iraqi infrastructure. In one sign of progress, it invited commercial airlines to apply to serve the capital's airport, a sign the reopening of the former Saddam International may be at hand. It was effectively cut off from the world 13 years ago by U.. sanctions imposed following the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.