In a marked escalation in attacks, suspected insurgents on Wednesday tried to shoot down a U.S. transport plane with a surface-to-air missile, killed an American soldier in a convoy and gunned down the pro-American mayor of a city in the restive "Sunni Triangle."
The violence came on the eve of a banned holiday when Saddam Hussein loyalists were expected to demonstrate their power.
The U.S. military said one surface-to-air missile was fired on a C-130 transport as it landed at Baghdad International Airport. Spc. Giovani Lorente said he could not say where the plane was arriving from or whether it was carrying passengers, cargo or both. Lorente said it was only the second known missile attack on a plane using the airport since Baghdad fell to U.S. forces April 9.
In Hadithah, Mayor Mohammed Nayil al-Jurayfi's car was ambushed about 2 p.m. by unidentified attackers firing automatic rifles as he drove away from his office with one of his nine sons, police Capt. Khudhier Mohammed told The Associated Press. Hadithah, a city of about 150,000, is 150 miles northwest of Baghdad on the road to Syria.
Mohammed said the mayor was killed because "he was seizing cars from those that used to work at the president's (Saddam Hussein's) office" in Hadithah, one of several cities in the so-called "Sunni Triangle," so named because it contains the bulk of active supporters of Saddam, whose Sunni Muslim minority ran the country until April 9.
The American soldier was killed and three others were injured in a rocket-propelled grenade attack west of Baghdad near the Abu Ghraib prison, a U.S. military spokesman said. In a separate attack, an eight-year-old Iraqi child died when an assailant threw a grenade into a U.S. military vehicle guarding a bank in west Baghdad.
The U.S. driver of the vehicle was wounded along with four adult Iraqi bystanders, according to a U.S. officer, said Maj. Kevin West of the 4th Battalion, 1st Field Artillery.
"They're killing more Iraqis than they are Americans," West said, shaking his head.
The Hadithah police captain, whose stationhouse sits next to the mayor's office, told the AP that some city government employees received a leaflet Wednesday morning warning them not to go to work.
The leaflets were signed by "Liberating Iraq's Army." A day earlier, a member of the previously unheard of organization went on Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television and promised retribution against any country that sends peacekeeping troops.
He read a letter directed to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and said peacekeepers would be attacked even if they were sent under a U.N. mandate and wearing the world body's traditional blue helmets.
In other developments:
The Arab satellite broadcaster Al-Jazeera, meanwhile, reported that residents of Hadithah had accused the slain mayor of collaborating with coalition forces.
Hadithah shopowner Amir Jafar concurred:
"This mayor is an unwanted person." he said. "He doesn't belong to this city. He is from another city and he was cooperating with the Americans."
The attack was certain to have a chilling effect on other Iraqi officials sympathetic to the Americans. One of the members of the newly inaugurated Iraqi Governing Council, hand-picked by the U.S. administrator of Iraq, hails from Hadithah. Samir Shakir Mahmoud, the council member, is a Sunni but was a leading member of the opposition to Saddam Hussein.
In Baghdad, former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik, who is now running the Iraqi interior ministry and working to rebuild police in the country, was asked if he thought Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terror network was behind the escalating attacks.
"Nobody is identified as al Qaeda yet. Could they be out there? It's possible. The bottom line is I don't care if they're al Qaeda, I don't care if they're (Saddam) Fedayeen (paramilitary). I don't care if they are Baathists, I don't care who they are. If they attack the coalition and they attack the police they're gong to be arrested or they're going to be killed," Kerik said.
Wednesday's attacks were launched on the eve of a banned holiday that marked the 1968 Baathist coup that led 11 years later to Saddam grabbing power. The July 17th celebration was one of six holidays important to the Baathists that was outlawed by the Governing Council in its first official action.
U.S. soldiers have come under increasingly ferocious attacks by suspected Saddam loyalists in recent weeks — reaching an average of 12 attacks a day. A total 33 U.S. soldiers have been killed in hostile action since U.S. President George W. Bush declared an end to major hostilities on May 1.
The Pentagon said that as of Monday 144 U.S. personnel had been killed in combat since the start of the Iraq war. Since then, at least two U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraqi attacks, bringing the total just short of the 147 killed in combat during the 1991 Gulf War.
In Wednesday's death, the rocket-propelled grenade blasted into the soldier's truck, hurling him out, as the 20-vehicle convoy passed along a main highway. Soldiers at first believed a bomb was remotely detonated as the convoy passed.
Sgt. Diego Baez, who escaped without injury from the truck, wept over his comrade's death.
"We slept next to each other just last night. He was my best friend," Baez said.
The convoy, made up of reservists from a supply unit based in Puerto Rico, had been heading to a U.S. base near the Jordanian border.
"We need more protection. We've seen enough. We've stayed in Iraq long enough," said Spc. Carlos McKenzie, a member of the convoy.
Also Wednesday, a U.S. Marine died in the southern city of Hilla when he fell from the roof of a building he was guarding, the military said. The soldier was taken to a hospital but died of his injuries.
The deaths highlighted the long and painful road left for coalition forces as they try to stabilize Iraq.
The new Governing Council — Iraq's first postwar national body — met again Wednesday and talked with L. Paul Bremer for three hours about ways to improve security in the country, the American administrator said, without giving details.
U.N. officials said a council delegation would visit the Security Council on July 22, when the world body is to discuss its role in postwar Iraq.