More troops needed

in northern Iraq, Gates told

BAGHDAD - U.S. commanders in northern Iraq told Defense Secretary Robert Gates here yesterday that they need more troops to battle increased attacks by al Qaeda terrorists who have fled north after being pushed out of the Baghdad region.

The call for the movement of Iraqi and U.S. forces into the north comes as Gates hailed the improved security in Baghdad and said a stable Iraq is within reach. Just before Gates spoke in the heavily fortified Green Zone, however, a car bomb exploded across the Tigris River in a largely Shiite Baghdad neighborhood, killing at least 14 people, police said.

Up in Mosul, Army Col. Tony Thomas, deputy commander of U.S. forces in the north, told reporters traveling with Gates that commanders would like more U.S. troops, as well as the return of 1,400 Iraqi troops who were sent to Baghdad as part of the military buildup there earlier this year. The plan could shift extra troops from other areas of the country that are more secure.

U.S. military commanders, meanwhile, announced that three American soldiers were killed in an attack Tuesday by insurgents north of Baghdad. One of the men died yesterday and two died Tuesday, of wounds from an explosion and small-arms fire in Salahuddin province.

Bush administration having trouble selling Iran threat

The Bush administration scrambled yesterday to hold together a global alliance of suspicion against Iran, saying that the clerical regime still has much to answer for despite a U.S. reversal of its claim that Tehran is seeking nuclear weapons now.

President Bush opened a trip to Nebraska with a warning about Iran - his second in the two days since U.S. intelligence agencies jointly concluded that Iran had long ago dropped active military nuclear ambitions.

Bush's top diplomat, who must explain and sell the shifted U.S. position among European allies later this week, pushed anew yesterday for international solidarity on Iran.

No allies have told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that they want to back out of a U.S.-led drive for new sanctions on Iran, but the administration is worried that the new assessment weakens its leverage over Iran and drains the urgency from international efforts to roll back Iran's nuclear program.

The re-evaluation of the Iranian threat has overshadowed diplomatic meetings Rice attended in Africa.

Vice President Dick Cheney acknowledged that the new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran might make it harder to build international support to persuade Iran to give up its uranium enrichment program.

"There's nothing in the NIE that said we should be - not be concerned about their enrichment activities," Cheney told Politico.com, an online political magazine.

Asked whether the intelligence report made that task more difficult, Cheney replied: "Perhaps, but it wasn't easy to begin with."

Israel military has drafted plan to make Gaza assault

JERUSALEM - Israel's army has completed plans for a large offensive in the Gaza Strip and is only waiting for government approval, the military chief said yesterday, shortly after two Palestinian militants were killed by Israeli tank fire in the coastal area.

Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi said that until he receives the go-ahead for a broad operation, Israel would continue with its policy of airstrikes and brief ground incursions to halt Palestinian rocket attacks.

"If it is necessary, we are prepared for the possibility of action," Ashkenazi told Army Radio. "Until then I think it is our duty to exhaust all other avenues and to operate every day and night in order to provide security."

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Tuesday, that now is not the time for a broad operation, which would likely result in heavy casualties to Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians. *

-Associated Press