MOSUL, Iraq, Dec 24 (Reuters): US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld paid a surprise Christmas visit to troops in the Iraqi city of Mosul, scene this week of the deadliest attack on Americans since last year's war to oust Saddam Hussein.
Rumsfeld, who flew in Thursday amid great secrecy, visited staff and patients in a hospital at the US base where a suicide bomber infiltrated and killed 22 people, including 14 US military personnel and four American contractors.
"The purpose of the trip is to thank the troops and wish them a merry Christmas," Rumsfeld, who has been criticised in some quarters for not showing sufficient concern for troops' welfare, told reporters during the flight from Washington.
Rumsfeld said his trip to Iraq had been planned for a while but was kept secret for security reasons and that Tuesday's attack had not been a factor in selecting the northern city for a visit.
He is due to have breakfast with troops Friday and be briefed by commanders, hours after the US military concluded a suicide bomber-probably in Iraqi military uniform-was behind the attack.
Rumsfeld acknowledged that a deterioration in the security situation in the Mosul area may have been caused by the infiltration of guerrillas escaping US forces who stormed the rebel stronghold of Falluja, west of Baghdad, last month.
Meanwhile, at least three Marines were killed in combat that underlined how
far the city and surrounding area are from being tamed as the United States and its Iraqi allies try to bring quiet before national elections Jan. 30.
In the center of Fallujah, F-18s dropped several bombs, sending up plumes of smoke. Tank and machine gun fire could be heard to the south, while howitzers at Camp Fallujah southeast of the city boomed throughout the day. The guns fired illumination rounds after dark to help Marines on the ground spot attackers.
The military would not give specific figures for casualties in Fallujah, saying only that three Marines were killed in action Thursday in Anbar province, which surrounds the city. But a US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the three deaths occurred in the Fallujah clashes.
While the fighting raged, hundreds of Fallujans spent hours lined up at a checkpoint northwest of the city, one of four entry points where people had to prove they lived in the Andalus district, a mostly commercial area in the heart of Fallujah that was the first neighbourhood opened to residents.
Thursday's combat was the heaviest around Fallujah since a surge of fighting Dec. 10 that killed seven Marines, three Iraqi soldiers and about 50 insurgents.
The violence in Fallujah and Mosul underscores the difficulty the United States and its Iraqi allies are facing in trying to bring off the election. Voter registration has not begun in either city, and the election could be seen as illegitimate if these two major cities and outlying areas don't take part.
The deaths of the three Marines, and the killing of a US soldier by a roadside bomb in Baghdad Thursday, raised the number of US troops who have died since the start of the war in March 2003 to at least 1,325, according to an unofficial count by The Associated Press.