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Commander: Attacks 'stepped up' against U.S.

Hooded alleged illegal vendors are brought to a police station by U.S. troops after being apprehended Thursday in Baghdad, Iraq.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The top military commander in Iraq on Thursday said that Saddam loyalists have "stepped up" their attacks against U.S. forces in the past week and there "is absolutely no question in my mind" that American soldiers and their Iraqi supporters killed in recent ambushes were victims of "professional assassinations."

Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez blamed pro-Saddam Fedayeen militias and Special Republican Guard soldiers for the attacks on U.S. troops.

His comments came after the deaths of two more soldiers in Iraq.

Sanchez told reporters it's a top priority for his forces to determine the status of Saddam and his two sons Uday and Qusay. Whether Saddam "is dead or alive is making an impact on the people of Iraq and the ability to cooperate with the coalition," he said.

Two U.S. soldiers were killed Wednesday in separate attacks in Iraq as their convoys came under fire, one near Tikrit and one south of Baghdad near al-Mahmudiyah.

At least 79 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since Bush announced an end to major fighting May 1. Of those, 32 have been killed by hostile fire and 47 were victims of non-hostile fire or accidents.

Democrats have stepped up their criticism of President George W. Bush over the lingering campaign's rising death toll and his rationale for going to war.

"Now clearly it's time for the president to step forward and tell the truth, that the war is continuing and so are the casualties," said Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, one of nine Democrats seeking their party's 2004 presidential nomination.

The Democratic National Committee prepared an ad assailing the president for using false intelligence in his State of the Union address last January to establish that Saddam was preparing nuclear weapons. (Full story)

Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the issue directly while traveling with Bush in Africa.

Powell said there was never any "attempt on the part of the president or anyone else in the administration to mislead or deceive the American people."

"We now have to focus on the future," he said, "and that is to build a better Iraq for the Iraqi people and help them put in place a representative form of government that will make sure that there are never any more weapons of mass destruction, and that it's a country that will live in peace with its neighbors."

Bush said Thursday "There's no question we've got a security issue" in Iraq. "We're just going to have to deal with it person by person. We're going to have to remain tough."

In Washington, Gen. Tommy Franks, who recently stepped down as head of U.S. Central Command, told lawmakers that coalition forces have gone on the "offensive" against pro-Saddam fighters.

"We have our people every day, not sitting in base camps but rather out looking to find the Baathists, looking to find the jihadis, looking to find these people who cross the border from Syria and are hell bent on creating difficulty," he told members of the House Armed Services Committee.

Concern over the growing pressure on U.S. troops intensified in the past week with the release of two audiotapes purportedly from Saddam aired on Arabic-language networks exhorting Iraqi civilians to resist the U.S. occupation of the country.

Bush said it will "take more time" for freedom to sink in for the Iraqi people and that civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer told him "the vast majority of Iraqi citizens are thrilled that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power."

Other developments

• Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told a Senate committee Wednesday the Pentagon projects that the Iraq war and occupation would cost an average of almost $4 billion a month through September. (Full story)

• U.S. soldiers seized 12 artifacts missing from Baghdad's Iraqi National Museum in a raid on a suspected smuggler's house, U.S. Central Command said Thursday. The pieces -- miniature statues, a skull and a clay bowl -- were found wrapped in towels in a rice bag, along with AK-47s, grenades, several million Iraqi dinar and communications equipment. Two people identified as prospective buyers were detained.

• Khaled Abdel-Latif Dumeisi, 60, publisher of an Illinois-based Arabic language magazine, was arrested Wednesday on charges of failing to register as a foreign agent of Saddam's regime and conspiracy, federal prosecutors said. He is accused of gathering information about Iraqi opposition groups in the United States. (Full story)

• Fatigue, stress, mechanical malfunctions and a disastrous series of errors beset members of the Army's 507th Maintenance Company as they neared Nasiriya, Iraq, on March 23, according to a draft report from the Army. The result was an Iraqi ambush that left 11 soldiers dead and seven captured, the report said. Pfc. Jessica Lynch was among those in the convoy, and U.S. forces later rescued her from an Iraqi hospital. (Full story)

• Ahmed al Ani, an Iraqi intelligence officer who was reported to have met with September 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta before the attacks, was picked up in Iraq last week and is in U.S. custody, officials said. Shortly after the attacks, Czech Republic authorities told U.S. officials they had evidence the two men had met in Prague in April 2001. U.S. officials said, however, they had no evidence that Atta ever went to Prague. (Full story)

CNN Baghdad Bureau Chief Jane Arraf and Correspondents Dana Bash, David Ensor, Jamie McIntyre and Nic Robertson contributed to this report.

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