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Mortar fire hits Green Zone again, fueling fear in a former safe haven

At least two Iraqis were killed and about 10 hurt in the U.S.-controlled area in central Baghdad.

BAGHDAD - Mortar rounds hammered the U.S.-controlled Green Zone for a second day yesterday, killing at least two people, wounding about 10, and raising new fears for the safety of workers at the nerve center of the American mission in Iraq.

About a dozen shells crashed into the 3.5-square-mile area of central Baghdad about 4 p.m., sending terrified pedestrians racing for the safety of concrete bunkers.

Motorists abandoned their cars and sprinted for cover. Sirens wailed and loudspeakers warned people to seek safety.

No American casualties were reported, and the two dead as well as most of the wounded were Iraqis, U.S. Embassy spokesman Lou Fintor said.

Both the intensity and skill of the attack were noteworthy. The shells, believed to be 122mm, exploded in rapid succession during a three-minute period.

The blasts were relatively close to one another, suggesting an experienced mortar crew using more than one launcher.

It was unclear whether the rounds were fired by Sunni or Shiite extremists. Both groups operate in areas of the city within rocket and mortar range of the secured complex despite the Baghdad security crackdown.

Mortar and rocket crews can set up their weapons quickly on the beds of trucks or in parts of the city with limited surveillance, fire their rounds, and flee before U.S. and Iraqi forces can respond.

U.S. officials would not comment on damage, citing security.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey downplayed the attack, saying that "it's been part of the operating environment for our officials there, as well as for other people working there."

Nevertheless, the recent increase in attacks has raised alarm among American staffers living and working in what had been considered an oasis of safety in the Iraqi capital. This month, the U.S. Embassy ordered diplomats to wear flak jackets and helmets while outdoors or in unprotected buildings.

Later this year, the United States plans to open its huge new embassy, a 27-building complex on a 104-acre tract inside the Green Zone. Embassy staffers have expressed concern that the new facility, which is reportedly to include more than 600 blast-resistant apartments, lacks enough space to house the estimated 1,000 employees in safety.

In March, a rocket exploded near Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office during a news conference for visiting U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who ducked behind the lectern as the blast showered small bits of debris from the ceiling. Two Americans - a soldier and a contractor - died in that barrage.

On April 12, a suicide bomber managed to penetrate the numerous security checkpoints, detonating an explosive belt in the cafeteria of the Iraqi parliament building. One Iraqi lawmaker was killed.

On Other Fronts

About 4,000 U.S. troops and 2,000 Iraqis continued to search yesterday for three U.S. soldiers feared captured by al-Qaeda in Iraq during an ambush last weekend in which four Americans and

an Iraqi were killed.

The United States was offering rewards of up to $200,000 for information on the missing soldiers' whereabouts, according to Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of U.S. troops south of Baghdad.

"We've done so much as to drain canals after a report that the bodies were in a canal," Lynch said.

At least 88 violent deaths were reported by police across Iraq yesterday, including 32 people who died the night before when

a car bomb exploded near

a market in the Shiite enclave of Abu Saydah, northeast of Baghdad.

Clashes also broke out in the mostly Shiite city of Nasiriyah in southern Iraq, when Shiite militants loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr battled police to protest the arrests of two of their members, police said.

Eleven Iraqis were killed and 75 wounded, police said.

- Associated Press