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Suicide truck bombs strike religious sect in Iraq, dozens dead; U.S. helicopter crash kills 5

    BAGHDAD — Three suicide truck bombers targeted members of an ancient religious sect in northwestern Iraq on Tuesday, killing at least 20 people and setting apartment buildings and stores ablaze, while the crash of an American transport helicopter near an air base in Anbar killed five U.S. servicemembers.
    Four more U.S. soldiers were reported killed in separate attacks — three in an explosion near their vehicle Monday in the northwestern Ninevah province and another who was died of wounds from combat in western Baghdad.
    In a separate attack, a fourth suicide truck bomber struck a strategic bridge on the main highway linking Baghdad with the northern city of Mosul, killing at least 10, police said. The span was bombed three months ago and only one lane had reopened, according to the police officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
    And in Baghdad, dozens of uniformed gunmen in 17 official vehicles stormed an Oil Ministry compound and abducted a deputy oil minister and three other officials, a ministry spokesman and police said.
    The violence came as 16,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops began a new operation north of the Iraqi capital targeting insurgents who have fled a crackdown in the restive city of Baqouba, the military said Tuesday.
    Nobody claimed responsibility for the attacks on the Yazidis, a primarily Kurdish sect that worships an angel figure considered to be the devil by some Muslims and Christians, but they bore the hallmark of al-Qaida in Iraq, which has been regrouping in the north of the country after being driven from safe havens in Anbar and Diyala provinces.
    The sect has been the targets of attacks in the past, with the most violent coming after the stoning death in April of a Yazidi teenager who had recently converted to Islam after she eloped with a Muslim. Police said the 18-year-old woman was killed by relatives who disapproved of the match.
    Two weeks later, gunmen shot and killed 23 Yazidis execution-style after stopping their bus and separating out followers of other faiths after checking their identification cards in what was believed to have been retaliation for the woman’s death.
    The bodies of two Yazidi men who had been stoned to death also turned up in the morgue in the northern city of Kirkuk on Tuesday, six days after they had been kidnapped while they were en route to Baghdad to sell olives, police said.
    ‘‘The two men killed were only peasants who were planning to sell their crops in Baghdad, they have nothing to do with political and religious disputes. We are still paying the price of a foolish, wrong act conducted by small number of Yazidis who stoned the woman,’’ said 44-year-old Sami Benda, a relative of one of the slain men.
    The U.S. service members were killed when a CH-47 Chinook helicopter crashed during routine post-maintenance test flight near Taqaddum air base, according to a military statement and 1st Lt. Shawn Mercer, a Marine spokesman.
    The air base is about 45 miles west of Baghdad in restive Anbar province, a Sunni insurgent stronghold that has become calmer in recent months as tribal leaders have joined forces against al-Qaida in Iraq.
    In Baghdad, Abdel-Jabar al-Wagaa, the senior assistant to Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani, was spirited away by more than 50 gunmen wearing security forces uniforms and driving what were believed to be military vehicles, said Assem Jihad, the oil ministry spokesman.
    An Interior Minister official, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to release the information, said a top official in the State Oil Marketing Organization and three directors general in the operation also were kidnapped.
    The official said five bodyguards were wounded in the raid on the State Oil Marketing Organization complex in eastern Baghdad.
    Five Britons were seized May 29 in a similar raid on Iraq’s Finance Ministry, not far from the oil marketing office. They were taken by gunmen wearing police uniforms and have not been found.
    Both government organizations are near the lawless Sadr City Shiite enclave, a stronghold of the Mahdi Army militia.
    The raid also was reminiscent of an attack by Mahdi Army fighters, dressed as Interior Ministry commandos, who stormed a Higher Education Ministry office Nov. 14 and snatched away as many as 200 people. Dozens of those kidnap victims were never been found.
    Jihad said the kidnappers Tuesday were an ‘‘armed gang’’ and took the deputy minister from his home in the compound. He said the gunmen stole a number of cars from the compound, most of them belonging to the marketing organization.
    The U.S. and Iraq operation north of the capital, dubbed Operation Lightning Hammer, began late Monday with an air assault and was part of a broader U.S. push announced Monday to build on successes in Baghdad and surrounding areas by targeting al-Qaida in Iraq and Iranian-allied Shiite militia fighters nationwide.
    Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, said the troops were pursuing al-Qaida cells that had been disrupted and forced into hiding by previous operations.
    Local officials, meanwhile, said four civilians, including a young girl, were killed and five wounded Tuesday during a raid by joint U.S.-Iraqi forces in Baghdad’s Shiite district of Sadr City. The U.S. military said four gunmen were killed and eight detained after a fierce gunfight.
    Spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said he had no reports of civilians killed in the operation: ‘‘We work very hard to avoid any injury to civilians.’’
    Associated Press photos showed the body of 6-year-old Zahraa Hussein lying in a wooden coffin, her white nightdress stained with blood. A police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information, said the girl and her father had been struck by shrapnel while they slept on the roof of their house seeking relief from the heat.
    ———
    Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin, Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Sameer Yacoub contributed to this report.

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