| US soldiers watch an Iraqi girl sing at a Catholic orphanage in Azamiya, north of Baghdad, on Wednesday. (AFP)
Baghdad, Dec. 24 (Reuters): US forces fought insurgents in southern Baghdad, shaking the Iraqi capital into the early hours today with some of the heaviest explosions and gunfire in weeks.
A deadly spate of Christmas Eve attacks capped the US action, as three US soldiers died in a bomb blast north of Baghdad and guerrillas fired a mortar round that hit the capital’s Sheraton Ishtar Hotel where many westerners were staying.
Civilian and military officials of the US-led forces have warned diehard insurgents would launch spectacular attacks during the holiday season.
A Reuters correspondent said he saw insurgents fire at the Sheraton hotel from a car. He said two cars sped away along a dirt road beside the nearby Tigris river after the attack, as security guards and US troops opened fire. A private security adviser said while there was some damage to the roof of the hotel, but no one had been hurt.
Elsewhere, a roadside bomb ripped through a US military convoy driving on a highway near the town of Samarra, killing three soldiers and destroying their vehicle, the military said.
In the northern Kurdish city of Arbil, a suicide car bomb blew up at the entrance of the local interior ministry headquarters, killing the bomber, two policemen guarding the facility, a passerby and a 13-year-old girl. A Kurdish official said more than 100 people were wounded.
Witnesses to the US aircraft and artillery operation reported hearing the blasts kilometres away and some residents said US bombers were in action. The US military would only confirm its troops were involved in Operation Iron Justice, part of the new tactics adopted to counter a relentless insurgency.
The fighting in Baghdad erupted in an area known as the “mechanic district” because of its many mechanic shops. A Reuters witness said helicopters were flying over the city and explosions could be heard several kilometres away in central Baghdad. “We don’t see any flashes of impact, we’re just hearing sounds,” a Reuters witness said.
The blasts were the most sustained in some time in the Iraqi capital. On November 18 a series of heavy explosions shook Baghdad as US forces stepped up their assault on guerrillas in an operation dubbed “Iron Hammer”.
The US military has stepped up its hunt for insurgents since the capture of Saddam earlier this month. American officials said they hoped the arrests of the militants would help lead them to Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, one of Saddam’s top aides.