The one-day death toll was the highest since May, during which almost 700 Iraqis lost their lives. Fourteen Iraqis died, half of them soldiers, in early morning car bomb blasts around the northern town of Hawija in the latest major attack on Iraq's security forces.

 

The explosions occurred as officials hailed gains from Operation Lightning, a more than two-week-old sweep of the capital.

 

Three bombers struck almost simultaneously, targeting army checkpoints on the northern, western and eastern entrances of the Sunni Arab town, 210km from Baghdad, police said.

 

The toll was 14 dead and 20 wounded, according to Dr Jasim Hamad, director of Hawija's general hospital. Among the dead were seven soldiers, three children and a woman.

 

US forces sealed off what quickly became a ghost town, with Apache attack helicopters circling overhead.

 

Ambushes and shootings

 

Nine people were killed in the northern city of Mosul, including four peshmerga members, reportedly shot by police after they were mistaken for anti-government fighters, and three students, slain when unidentified armed men burst into their apartment.

 

One police officer died in a drive-by shooting in the city's industrial district and another in a mortar attack on his station in Tun Kubri, to the south.

 

North of Baghdad, four Iraqi soldiers were killed in an ambush and roadside bombing, while two bullet-riddled bodies were found on the banks of a nearby river.

 

Near Falluja, west of Baghdad, three civilians died and 13 were wounded in a mortar attack on a military base.

 

In the capital, an employee of the Foreign Ministry was killed in a drive-by shooting and a police officer was shot dead in the Aamel neighbourhood.

 

The body of a police officer bearing bullet wounds was also discovered near the Abu Ghraib prison.

 

The managing director of an agency attached to the ministry of housing was seriously wounded in a drive-by shooting that killed his driver, raising the overall death toll for the day to at least 33.

 

Elsewhere, three contractors working with US forces were killed in an attack by armed men.

 

Also, Qaidat-al-Jihad has claimed responsibility for a blast targeting a US armoured vehicle in Tal Alfar, where a US-led offensive has been under way, involving helicopters, tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles.

 

 

Peak toll

 

Tuesday's toll surpassed one of 32 killed over a 24-hour period last Thursday and Friday.

 

The government revised the
number of men held to 887

A car bombing in Baghdad early in the day wounded 28 people, shattering the relative calm of recent days there as Iraqi forces backed by US troops pressed on with Operation Lightning.

 

Government spokesman Laith Kubba said the operation, now expanded south of the capital to the so-called triangle of death, had netted 887 detainees since 22 May, revised from an earlier figure of more than 1200.

 

"Fighting these criminal networks ... and eradicating them will not happen with a knockout blow, but rather it will be a slow death," Kubba said.

 

Turkish captive

 

Meanwhile, fighters released a video of a Turkish businessman and two companions they claimed to be holding, along with a threat to kill them within four days unless Ankara halted cooperation with the US military and companies in Iraq.

 

A short tape aired by Dubai television showed a man identified as Ali Abdullah seated on the ground, flanked by two men with guns in front of a banner bearing the name Ali bin Abi Taleb Brigades.

 

Cleric executed

 

Amid heightened tensions between the Shia and the ousted Sunni Arab elite meanwhile, the Iraqi Islamic Party said a Sunni cleric had been lured from his home in the mainly Shia southern city of Basra, tortured and executed.

 

Al-Kubaisi (L) accuses the Iraqi
government of terrorism

The body of Salim Abd al-Karim al-Kardissi was found under a bridge northwest of Basra after men in police uniforms took him from his home on Sunday, said Alaa al-Sabah, an official with the country's main Sunni party.

 

Police in Basra, where a Shia cleric was killed in a drive-by shooting on Thursday, said they had no information on the affair.

 

The Association of Muslim Scholars, the most influential group of Sunni clerics in Iraq, accused the government and security forces of singling out Sunni Arabs in Operation Lightning.

 

"We hold the government responsible for the fate of those arrested, the majority of whom are not terrorists," Shaikh Abd al-Salam al-Kubaisi, a senior member of the committee, said.

 

He urged Shia Arabs to retract their support for the interim government which he said was implementing the will of the occupier.

 

He also charged the government with what he said was "state terrorism against Sunni Arabs".

 

Infighting

 

Speaking to Aljazeera, General Wafiq al-Samarrai, security adviser to the Iraqi president, said fighters were starting to target each other.

 

"In western Iraq, clashes have erupted between al-Qaida organisation and the so-called Ansar al-Sunna on the one hand and remnants of Saddam loyalists and the so-called Jaish Muhammad on the other.

 

Iraqi soldiers have been advised
not to group at control sites

"The leader of the so-called Jaish Muhammad was killed in Hiyt district while the fighting was still raging," he said.

 

"This is a clear indication that the pressure exerted by the government and by the Iraqi people has borne fruit and the terrorists are fighting one another."

 

Despite the day's attacks, he said he thought the government's strategy was working.

 

"Suicide operations often leave distinct psychological, moral and publicity impressions. But they (the terrorists) are incapable of waging an open-ended war.

 

"We are assured that security is making steady progress. I am assured at both personal and national levels that terrorist operations have subsided within the last three months, as compared to the previous three month period.

 

"The drop is at the rate of 100 terrorist operations per week, and that is a big drop."