Nine Americans were killed in insurgent attacks across Iraq in the last two days, military and diplomatic sources said Tuesday. The dead included an embassy official and three security contractors killed Monday morning in a suicide car bombing in the northern city of Mosul.
Witnesses in Mosul said a lone driver smashed his red sedan into the second vehicle in a convoy of three sport-utility vehicles, triggering a fiery explosion. Security forces immediately cordoned the area and administered first aid, but the contractors and an assistant regional security officer, Stephen Eric Sullivan, had died instantly, according to a U.S. official in Baghdad who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Two others riding in the diplomatic convoy, which was leaving a U.S. Embassy satellite office, suffered minor injuries.
"Steve was a brave American, dedicated to his country and to a brighter future for the people of Iraq," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a written statement. "Our thoughts and prayers are with Steve's family."
Sullivan, whose job involved coordinating security and overseeing contractors, was the third American diplomat killed since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Diplomatic security agent Edward J. Seitz died in October in a mortar attack on a U.S. base near Baghdad International Airport. The following month, James Mollen, an American special adviser to Iraq's Higher Education and Scientific Research Ministry, was shot to death near the capital's fortified Green Zone.
Also Tuesday, the U.S. military announced the deaths of four soldiers in two roadside bombings in the city of Ramadi, 60 miles west of Baghdad, and the death of another soldier whose vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb 75 miles north of the capital. The soldiers' names were not released.
According to the Pentagon, 1,902 U.S. service members, including civilian employees of the Defense Department, have been killed in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion.
The recent rash of violence against Americans came as British and Iraqi officials offered widely contrasting public accounts of the circumstances that led to clashes Monday between British soldiers and Iraqi police in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city. A British armored vehicle smashed into a police station in an attempt to force the release of two British soldiers who had been detained.
Haider Abadi, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, called the British actions "very unfortunate" and said police had acted correctly in detaining the men, who were behaving "very suspiciously." They were wearing civilian clothes and asking for information in the streets, he said, but would not elaborate.
"We hoped they would solve this problem with the central government," Abadi said. "But the British forces decided to act individually, and the military operation to release the detainees happened the way we saw it. This is wrong, and it is not a healthy way to deal with problems."
Throughout the day, Iraqi and other Arab television stations broadcast images of the two British men, clad in dark pants and T-shirts, seated in front of a table bearing what appeared to be a large quantity of weapons and ammunition purportedly discovered in their possession. One man had scrapes and small cuts on his head and the side of his face.
Brig. John Lorimer said in a written statement that under Iraqi law, the police were required to hand over the men to coalition forces, an outcome he said he and the British consul general had sought to negotiate.
Lorimer said that the Iraqi interior minister had personally ordered the British personnel released and that the order was ignored. Instead, he said, the two were handed over to a local Shiite Muslim militia.
"I became concerned about the safety of the soldiers after we received information that they had been handed over to militia elements," Lorimer said. "As a result, I took the difficult decision to order entry to the Jamiat police station."
British troops set a cordon around the station and were attacked with "firebombs and rockets by a violent and determined crowd," Lorimer said. An armored vehicle plowed through one wall of a building, but the men were not found inside. They were later discovered in a house elsewhere in the city.
"It is of deep concern that British soldiers held by the police should end up being held by militia," Lorimer said. "This is unacceptable, and I should stress that we won't hesitate to take action against those involved in planning and conducting attacks against coalition forces."
Police officials in Basra have said publicly that the primary loyalty of many of their officers is to Shiite militias such as the Badr Organization, which is affiliated with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the country's dominant Shiite political party. Unrest erupted in Basra this week after the arrest of two members of the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to the outspoken Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr and a rival of the Badr group.
Lorimer did not specify which militia he believed was involved in the British detentions.
Elsewhere in Iraq on Tuesday, government officials said that residents of the northwestern city of Tall Afar who fled during a large U.S.-Iraqi offensive against insurgents this month had been invited to return to their homes and that about $50 million would soon be spent to help rebuild the city.
Abadi, the prime minister's spokesman, said more than 800 suspected insurgents were killed or captured during the operation -- the largest urban assault since the offensive in Fallujah in November.
"The terrorists have received a deadly blow in Tall Afar," Abadi said. He cautioned, however, that intelligence indicated some insurgents were attempting to slip back into the city among returning residents.
Fourteen civilians were killed and 25 wounded during the fighting, he said, adding that residents whose homes and property were damaged would be compensated. The government is also establishing five police stations in a city largely devoid of police presence for much of the past year, he said.
"We have information that some of the terrorists infiltrated the refugee camps," said Brig. Gen. Abdul Aziz Muhammed-Jassim, commander of the Defense Ministry operations room. "Thus, the process of checking people at the entrances to the city is very important to make sure they don't enter the city again."
Abadi said Tall Afar would be secure enough for citizens to vote in the Oct. 15 referendum on Iraq's draft constitution. In Baghdad on Tuesday, the Iraqi Islamic Party, the country's largest Sunni Muslim political organization, announced in a written statement its "total rejection" of the constitution and urged followers to vote against it. Party leaders had previously suggested they might remain neutral.
Sunnis are widely expected to oppose the constitution, which will fail if two-thirds of voters in at least three provinces vote against it. Among several aspects of the document opposed by many Sunnis is the devolution of power from the central government to regions, a process some fear could lead to Iraq's dissolution.
"We appeal to the people's will represented by the patriotic forces, the civil society institutions and individuals to exercise their rights in rejecting this draft," the party's statement said.
Also Tuesday, the U.S. military announced the arrest of two men with medical training who are suspected of being senior members of al Qaeda in Iraq, the country's main insurgent group. Anis Abdul Razaq Ali Muhammad and Mazen Mahdi Salih Mahdi Khudayr are alleged to have established facilities to treat wounded insurgent fighters and were apprehended in raids in Baghdad in late August, the military said.
Special correspondents Naseer Nouri and Bassam Sebti in Baghdad contributed to this report.