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Two Sunni mosques attacked south of Baghdad

After a suicide truck bombing badly damaged an important Shiite mosque in the heart of the capital, killing at least 87 people, Shiite militants seem to have taken vengeance on their Sunni enemy, blowing up two Sunni mosques Wednesday south of Baghdad, causing heavy damage but no casualties.

Thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops, meanwhile, pressed forward on the second day of an operation aimed at clearing a Sunni insurgent stronghold northeast of Baghdad. The U.S. military said at least 30 al-Qaida fighters were killed and several bombs and weapons caches destroyed as the soldiers fought their way through the streets of Baqouba.

The U.S. military operation that involves some 10,000 American soldiers in Diyala province, an al-Qaida bastion to the north and east of Baghdad, matched in size the force that American generals sent against the insurgent-held city of Fallujah 2Ѕ years ago. By late Tuesday the military had reported only one American death, a Task Force Lightning soldier killed by an explosion near his vehicle.

Iraqi forces also have joined the battle in Diyala. Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said about 5,000 Iraqi soldiers and 2,000 paramilitary police were fighting, while the military said about 1,000 Iraqi soldiers and an equal number of police were involved. The differing numbers could not be immediately reconciled.

In addition to the 30 al-Qaida fighters killed in the operation, Iraq's Defense Ministry said that three civilians had been wounded, 13 suspected al-Qaida fighters were detained and 14 roadside bombs dismantled. Three car bombs also were defused and three weapons caches seized.

"The citizens received the valiant Iraqi army forces with overwhelming joy as the soldiers were waving to them with the V for victory sign," the ministry said in a statement.

The head of a Sunni insurgent group that has turned against al-Qaida and is cooperating with U.S. and Iraqi forces in the area said his fighters were participating in the operations and had succeeded in clearing several neighborhoods in eastern and western Baqouba.

The militant leader, who declined to be identified for fear of retribution, spoke as his fighters linked arms, chanted and danced while women ululated in celebration. An Associated Press reporter also saw residents in the Mustafa area in western Baqouba serving food to fighters who had battled al-Qaida and starting to repair their stores.

In Tuesday's mosque bombings, police said suspected Shiite militiamen detonated a bomb inside a Sunni mosque in Haswa, 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Baghdad, at about 1 a.m. About six hours later, militants struck again at mosque near Hillah, about 95 kilometers (60 miles) south of the capital. Police spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution.

The attackers near Hillah also targeted the imam's house near the mosque, but the cleric fled when he saw them coming, according to the police.

Tuesday's suicide truck bombing against the Khulani mosque in central Baghdad was the deadliest single attack in Iraq since April 18, when at least 127 civilians were killed when a bomb detonated parked car at a mostly Shiite market in central Baghdad.

At a joint briefing with a U.S. military spokesman, Iraqi army spokesman Brig. Qassim al-Mousawi said the truck was carrying about 50 cooking gas cylinders and about 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of TNT.

Asked how the suicide bomber managed to drive his truck bomb through Baghdad and next to the mosque, al-Mousawi said that it was booby-trapped in the nearby industrial area of Sheik Omar. There were no checkpoints between there and the mosque, he said.

Authorities are planning to put security fences near the mosques.

Police initially said the bomb was hidden in a truck piled high with electric fans and air conditioners.

The U.S. military spokesman, Rear Adm. Mark Fox, acknowledged "an increasing pattern of attacks" against the Green Zone, a day after a mortar barrage against the heavily fortified area sent soldiers and contractors scrambling for cover.

Militants fired a volley of mortars into the Green Zone, which houses the U.S. and British embassies as well as Iraqi government houses on the west bank of the Tigris River, officials said Tuesday. The U.S. Embassy said no casualties were reported, but the attack was the latest in what has become a nearly daily occurrence despite stringent security measures aimed at protecting the area.

Fox declined to provide details on the number of attacks against the Green Zone, which is also known as the International Zone, but said they were increasing.

"It's clear that there is an attempt to get lucky shots and there is unquestionably an increasing pattern of attacks here against the International Zone. There's no doubt about that," he said.

Battles also continued south of Baghdad between Iraqi security forces and Shiite militiamen loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Four soldiers were killed and a Humvee was burned in nearly two hours of clashes in the Shiite town of Numaniyah, 125 kilometers (77 miles) southeast of Baghdad, police said. The fighting erupted hours after five other Iraqi soldiers were killed and three were wounded by a roadside bomb in the mainly Sunni town of Madain, on the southeastern outskirts of Baghdad.

Further south, the U.S. military said three militants had been killed, including a senior leader of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, and 45 detained after two days of clashes in Nasiriyah, about 320 kilometers (200 miles) southeast of Baghdad. Iraqi police and hospital officials put the casualty toll at 35 killed and 150 wounded.

In all, 142 people were killed or found dead in sectarian violence Tuesday, a toll reflecting carnage associated with the months before the U.S. security crackdown in the capital began Feb. 14.

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