US Lieutenant-Colonel William MacDonald said the three soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division were killed in small arms fire 8km south of Tikrit when they were inspecting a suspected weapons site on Thursday.

It was the last of a spate of attacks in Iraq on Thursday, a day after a message attributed to ousted president Saddam Hussein called for continued resistance against the occupiers.

The attacks came as French President Jacques Chirac called on Washington to transfer power to an Iraqi government within months, after talks firming up French and German positions ahead of a weekend summit with Britain.

Day of casualties

Witnesses said US forces took heavy casualties when a vehicle carrying soldiers was attacked before catching fire in Khaldiyah, 80km west of Baghdad.

Witnesses said between three and eight badly burned US soldiers had been pulled out of the blazing vehicle, Aljazeera reported.

"A bomb exploded underneath a troop transport," said resident Mahmud Ali. "It caught fire. The remainder of the convoy tried to continue and was hit by rocket-propelled grenades 500m away."

Iraqis danced joyously around at least two US vehicles swallowed by flames and thick black smoke.

Some 300 Iraqi demonstrators celebrated the Khaldiyah attack, brandishing bits of American vehicles, hoisting portraits of Saddam and pledging to die for the dictator ousted by US-led forces in April.

Others danced joyously around at least two US vehicles swallowed by flames and thick black smoke.

More attacks

Elsewhere, the military said two US soldiers were wounded in an attack near Ramadi, west of Khaldiyah, but would not confirm the reports of heavy casualties in the same area.

The soldiers, from the 82nd Airborne Division, were wounded in a bomb and small arms attack, an army spokeswoman said, adding that they were in stable condition.

In Mosul, Aljazeera’s correspondent said that five rocket-propelled grenades had been fired into the local headquarters of the US military. No casualties were reported

Six mortar rounds were fired at Baghdad international airport and an army base in Samarra, 110km north of Baghdad, was also hit by mortar fire, Sergeant Mark Ingham said, without causing casualties.

And a fire erupted at an oil pipeline 200km north of Baghdad, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of US ground forces said, but it was not known whether it resulted from sabotage.

Iraqis listen to the latest 'Saddam' broadcast

Call to arms

The latest "Saddam tape" was broadcast by Al-Arabiya television on Wednesday. Previous ones have been deemed authentic by US intelligence.

"O mujahidin, you must tighten the noose and increase your strikes against the enemies by demonstrating, writing on walls and demanding your rights ... and above all through armed struggle," the speaker said, telling the coalition to leave Iraq.

Meanwhile, US officials said they were making changes to Washington's draft UN Security Council resolution seeking international assistance for Iraq to make it more palatable to countries that objected to the original document.

But US President George Bush said on Thursday there will "probably not" be a new resolution by the time he heads to New York early next week for the world body's General Assembly.

Old Europe speaks out

In Berlin, France's Chirac said, "We must move as quickly as possible toward ... the rapid transfer, under the control of the UN, of the responsibilities of government to the current governmental bodies in Iraq.

"And when I say as rapidly as possible, it is for us a question of months and not years naturally," he said at a press conference with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Germany and France, both vociferous opponents of the US-led war, want the United Nations to be the focus of reconstruction efforts.

Former UN arms inspector Hans Blix said the US-led invasion of Iraq was not justified and that Washington and London "over-interpreted" intelligence data.

Paris had also called for the installation of a provisional Iraqi government within one month, but Chirac's remarks Thursday suggest he is ready to compromise on that tight timetable.

In a further concession to the United States, Chirac said France would also be willing to help train new Iraqi police officers and military personnel if Germany went ahead with its offer to do so.

"It goes without saying that if the chancellor confirms that position, France will also do so for the same reasons," he said.

While Schroeder made almost no comment about Iraq, Chirac said, "We share the same vision and preoccupations about Iraq and the need to evolve toward the stabilisation and recovery of this country."

General Richard B Myers, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, said in Hungary the United States plans to train more Iraqi police to improve security, but did not specify where.

Blix blasts invasion

In London, an inquiry into the intelligence used to justify Britain's participation in the war continued with Ministry of Defence personnel director Richard Hatfield testifying that David Kelly should have been suspended for talking to reporters about the way intelligence was used to take Britain into war.

Weapons expert Kelly was found dead with a slit wrist on 18 July, a week after the ministry confirmed he was the source of a BBC report alleging the September 2002 intelligence dossier on Iraq's WMD had been exaggerated.

Meanwhile, former UN arms inspector Hans Blix told the BBC in an interview that the US-led invasion of Iraq was not justified and that Washington and London "over-interpreted" intelligence data.

Blix had said on Wednesday that Saddam had not had weapons of mass destruction for 10 years before the war.