US Troops Wounded Bush to Declare End to Combat

FALLUJA–WASHINGTON (Reuters)–A grenade attack wounded seven US soldiers in Iraq on Thursday even as President George W. Bush prepared to announce an end to combat and his envoys sought to reap diplomatic gains from the war.

Iraqis in Falluja–a Sunni Muslim city west of Baghdad–attacked a US base in apparent anger at the killing of 15 residents by US troops who fired at angry crowds twice this week–the military said.

"The attack was an expression of the anger of a few people in the city after what happened,” US Captain Alan Vaught said. The US Central Command said that of seven soldiers wounded–five required medical attention and were in a stable condition.

The attack underscored the turbulence facing Bush as he aims to turn the world’s attention from war to reconstruction during a speech scheduled for 0100 GMT on Friday aboard a US aircraft carrier nearly home from the Iraq war–now six weeks old.

While Bush readied his speech–Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had talks in Kuwait on reducing the US military presence in the region and Secretary of State Colin Powell began a European and Middle East diplomatic mission in Spain.

"Americans prayed that war would not be necessary and now pray that peace will be just and lasting,” Bush said on Thursday at White House ceremonies for the annual National Day of Prayer.

In his speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln–Bush was expected to stop short of formally declaring victory–but to set the stage for US-led efforts to rebuild Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Bush’s commander in the Iraq conflict–General Tommy Fran’s–told him on Tuesday that major combat operations were over.

"The president will also tell the American people there are still key objectives to be met in the country and in the broader war on terrorism,” White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett told CNN. "We are still searching for and will find the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein hid.”

GRAND ENTRY

The president planned a grand entry when he flies to the ship off the US West Coast with its more than 5,000 military personnel. Sitting up front next to the pilot on an S-3B Viking plane–he could face a sudden–stomach-churning stop as a cable catches the plane on the carrier’s flight deck.

Iraqis–who toppled statues of the ousted Saddam–have largely shown gratitude to the Americans for bringing Saddam down but also have made clear they want US troops to leave the country as soon as possible.

Pro-American Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi–back from decades in exile–said growing frustration about the disruption to basic services in Iraq could prompt new bouts of violence.

Chalabi–who heads the Iraqi National Congress–told Reuters an Iraqi force should be set up to patrol towns and cities so as to prevent a repeat of Falluja-like clashes with US troops.

In central Baghdad–at least three people were killed and more than 18 were badly burned when Iraqis–celebrating the resumption of electricity–shot up a petrol tanker sending waves of fire through a petrol station.

Next week Powell meets Israelis and Palestinians for talks on a peace "road map” leading to a Palestinian state by 2005.

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