One US soldier died in a roadside bomb blast in Baquba, 60km northeast of Baghdad, after his vehicle struck an improvised bomb, a US military spokeswoman said on Friday.

Earlier, a US soldier was killed defusing a roadside bomb near Baquba.

And another soldier was killed when his convoy hit a booby-trap explosive near al-Duluiyah between Baquba and Samarra, he said. One soldier was also wounded in that explosion.

Friday's deaths brought to five the number of US troops killed in the past 24 hours. Two US soldiers were killed in a mortar attack on their camp near Baquba on Thursday.

Baghdad bombarded

The US bombardment of Baghdad has targeted Iraqi fighters with artillery and cannon fire from fixed aircraft for the past four nights, increasing pressure on the resistance after the 13 December capture of Saddam Hussein near his home town of Tikrit.

Soldiers have conducted mass sweeps for rebels around the capital as part of the campaign, dubbed Operation Iron Grip, with some of the arrests allegedly the direct result of intelligence obtained from Saddam after he was captured.

A US military officer said on Thursday night the 1st Armoured Division had captured about 70 rebels in the first two days of Iron Grip, including a courier who relayed messages between Saddam and the rebels.

Rockets light up the Iraqi capital
as the US tries to quell resistance

Shia anger

Also on Friday, hundreds of Iraqi Shia stoned a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad on the anniversary of the assassination of a revered cleric who stood up to the now-jailed dictator's brutal regime.

It was the same spot where Shia rioted when they heard the news in February 1999 that Grand Ayat Allah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr and his two sons had been struck down by assassins' bullets on a road outside Najaf.

Outside the mosque in Sadr City, called Saddam City under the old regime, the Shia took their revenge on a bronze statue of the former dictator ripped down upon the arrival of US troops to the capital last April.

"We want revenge on the criminal Saddam," said Hussain Ali, a 30-year-old labourer. "He killed Sayyid Sadr and his two sons. He killed hundreds of our relatives here. We want him to be judged here, on this spot for his crimes."