The US patrol came under rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) attack in Baghdad, said military officials on Monday.

Earlier, an Iraqi bystander was also killed in the town of Baquba when a bomb detonated as a US patrol drove by, reported our correspondent. There were no American troops reported injured in the incident.

In another possible resistance attack, the Iraqi police chief of Khalidiyah, west of Baghdad, was shot dead when three men opened fire on his car.

Another three unknown assailants also opened fire at the car, seriously injuring two sergeants, said police officials.

No quick handover

Even as the US toll continues to rise, Secretary of State Powell spoke against what he said was too rapid a return of sovereignty to Baghdad.

Powell arrived in the northern Iraqi town of Halabja on Monday, on the second day of his trip in the occupied country.

The Secretary of State was to meet local officials and honour thousands of Kurds gassed by ousted Iraqi President Saddam Husayn's forces in 1988.

Powell arrived from the northern oil-rich city of Kirkuk, 250km north of Baghdad, where he made a brief stopover to change aircraft.

He was met in Halabja, 130km east of Kirkuk, by the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) Jalal Talabani and Masud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The two parties share control in the region.

Powell was later due to meet a delegation of 600 relatives of those massacred in the 1988 gas attack.

The top US official’s visit to Halabja is intended to serve as a reminder that Husayn used chemical weapons against his own people, said Powell’s aides.

US occupation of Iraq will not be
ending any time soon

Since US tanks rolled into Baghdad on 9 April they have found no weapons of mass destruction - Washington’s main reason for invading Iraq.

About 5000 people were killed in Halabja in 1988 when the Iraqi army unleashed poison gas in the town of more than 40,000 people amid a Kurdish revolt against Baghdad’s rule.

Vague timetable

Powell arrived in Baghdad on Sunday where he held talks with interim Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, and US occupying administrator Paul Bremer.

Speaking at a news conference, he admitted there was a need for a return to Iraqi sovereignty, but brushed off French calls for a faster handover.

Zebari said Iraqi elections would be held by the end of 2004.

But Powell shied away from committing to any timetable.

“Everybody wants this to go fast,” he said. “We’re not hanging on for the sake of hanging on.”

Powell also hailed what he said was progress in rebuilding Iraq’s economy and political system. Since the US-led occupation, Iraq has been plunged into lawlessness and instability.

The Secretary of State claimed there were “terrorists” trying to derail "reconstruction".