BAGHDAD, Iraq - Eight American Marines were killed in fighting west of Baghdad on Saturday, the military's bloodiest day in nearly six months.
A car bomb killed at least seven people in attack on an Arab television network in the capital, and Iraqi troops fired wildly on civilian vehicles, killing at least 14 people, witnesses and hospital officials said.
The U.S. military said nine Marines were also wounded in the fighting in Anbar province west of the capital which includes the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah. The statement gave no further on how or where they were killed.
It was the most U.S. deaths on a single day since May 2, when nine U.S. troops died in separate mortar attacks and roadside bombings in Baghdad, Ramadi and Kirkuk.
The deaths came as U.S. forces are gearing up for a major assault on Fallujah, seen as the toughest bastion of Sunni Muslim guerrillas, ahead of crucial elections due by Jan. 31.
Fierce clashes erupted Saturday in Fallujah as an American military convoy entered the southeastern industrial Shuhada neighborhood and nearby Nueimiya village - an apparent probing foray on the city's edges. Explosions and gunfire rocked the area and smoke was seen billowing in the air, witnesses said.
Marines responded with heavy artillery fire after insurgents shot mortar shells from positions in the southeast of the city. About 4 p.m. a Marine Harrier jet bombed a mortar position inside Fallujah and strafed it with machine-gun fire, "neutralizing the target and any threat," said Marine spokesman 1st Lt. Lyle Gilbert.
In Baghdad, the car bomb blasted the offices of the Al-Arabiya television network in the upscale Mansour neighborhood, killing seven people and wounding 19, according to police and hospital officials.
Three bodies, including one of a woman, were mutilated beyond recognition, said Al-Arabiya correspondent Najwa Qassem. She said they could not tell if any of the three bodies were those of Al-Arabiya employees. However, she confirmed that one guard and one administration worker were among the dead.
The blast collapsed the first floor of the building, where staffers were holding a meeting, said Saad al-Husseini, a correspondent of MBC, a sister channel of Al-Arabiya based in the same building.
Employees "were trapped between fire and the shattering shards of glass," he said. That "led to the high number of casualties. We were all there."
A militant group calling itself the "1920 Brigades" claimed responsibility for the attack, blasting Al-Arabiya as "Americanized spies speaking in Arabic tongue" in a statement posted on the Web.
"We have threatened them to no avail that they are the mouthpiece of the American occupation in Iraq," the statement said. It warned of more attacks against this "treacherous network." It was impossible to verify the claim's authenticity.
The group said Elie Nakouzi - the Christian Lebanese anchor who presents the TV program "From Iraq" - is No. 1 on their hit list. Nakouzi used to present the program from the network's offices in Baghdad before he was relocated to their studios in Dubai amid fears he would be targeted.
Meanwhile, south of Baghdad, witnesses said Iraqi forces opened fire randomly and threw handgrenades, hitting three minibuses and three vans, after a U.S. convoy came under attack Saturday
Abdul Razzaq al-Janabi, director of Iskandariyah General Hospital, said 14 people were killed and 10 others injured. More wounded were taken to other hospitals.
Footage by Associated Press Television News showed bloody bodies riddled with bullet holes inside the buses and on the street near the town of Haswa, about 25 miles south of the capital. Blood and gas was trickling underneath the vehicles. Empty bullet cases were also scattered around.
An APTN cameraman saw at least 18 bodies, while witnesses said there were more than 20 people killed in the incident.
The footage also showed the morgue of the hospital in nearby Iskandariyah packed with bodies stacked on top of each other.
The shooting came after an American convoy was attacked early Saturday on the road, witnesses said. Al-Janabi said some of the victims told him three improvised explosive devices detonated near the U.S. convoy.
After the U.S. troops pulled out, Iraqi police and National Guards arrived on the scene and began firing wildly, the witnesses said. The U.S. military had no immediate comment.
The area is a major insurgent hotspot where ambushes and attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces are common.
Witnesses said police also broke into the Osama bin Zayd mosque in the same area and detained its cleric and two guards.
In Baghdad Saturday, Mohammed Bashar al-Faydhi, a spokesman for the influential Association of Muslim Scholars, called for a government investigation into "this massacre, because it is a big disaster that the Iraqi policemen are carrying out such crimes."
Marines carried out a three-week siege of Fallujah in April that left hundreds dead - including civilians - angered many Iraqis and only left insurgents in tighter control of the city. The siege was launched after militants ambushed and killed four American contractors, mutilated their bodies and hung them from a bridge.
Now U.S. and Iraqi commanders are planning a new assult in a bid to tame insurgents before the elections. Up to 5,000 Islamic militants, Saddam Hussein loyalists and common criminals are hunkered down in Fallujah, U.S. officers said Friday. U.S. planners believe many of the city's 300,000 residents have already fled the city.
American officials stress that the final order to launch a big operation would come from Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. "We're gearing up to do an operation and when we're told to go, we'll go," Brig. Gen. Dennis Hejlik, deputy commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said at a camp near Fallujah. "When we do go, we'll whack them."
- A militant group showed a kidnapped Sudanese interpreter, Noureddin Zakaria, who was working for U.S. contractor Titan Corp. in Ramadi and demanded his company leave Iraq, in a video aired on Al-Arabiya.
- U.S. forces detained an influential Sunni leader in Baghdad, his family said. Sheik Hisham al-Duleimi, along with his son and brother-in-law, were arrested at their home, the sheik's brother Samer al-Duleimi said. The U.S. military had no comment.
- The Bangladesh government confirmed Saturday that one of its nationals was taken hostage by militants in Iraq, officials said. Abul Kashem, 42, a truck driver who works for a Kuwaiti transport company, was abducted near a U.S. military base in Iraq last week, officials said.