BAGHDAD — U.S. and Iraqi forces acting on a tip about an Al Qaeda cell stormed a house in a middle-class neighborhood of Mosul and, after a six-hour clash, all eight people inside were dead -- including three who killed themselves with vest bombs, a police general said. Four Iraqi police officers also died.
Authorities were trying to determine Sunday whether any of those killed was Iraq's No.1 terrorism suspect, Abu Musab Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
In Washington, officials said they had no indication that Zarqawi had been killed or captured in the battle Saturday, and that efforts to identify the dead were inconclusive as of Sunday evening. Officials said fingerprints, DNA and other forensic evidence would be compared with identifiers, including Zarqawi's, in U.S. intelligence databases.
The Pentagon had received no information suggesting that Zarqawi had been killed or even targeted in a U.S. military operation, according to Defense Department chief spokesman Lawrence Di Rita.
"I just have no reason to believe that any of these reports we are getting are accurate," Di Rita said Sunday evening. He noted that similar reports about the capture of Zarqawi and other militants have proved false.
Zarqawi, blamed for a long string of attacks against U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi targets -- and recently for three nearly simultaneous suicide bombings at hotels in Jordan -- has been the focus of a massive hunt in Iraq.
A Jordanian-born militant who fought in Afghanistan, Zarqawi had established a fundamentalist Islamic enclave in northern Iraq before the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion. In the months after American forces arrived, he emerged as the leader of Islamist resistance to the U.S. presence.
Zarqawi has eluded U.S. forces for more than two years in spite of a $25-million reward offered by American officials for information leading to his death or capture.
After Saturday's gun battle, Nineveh province Gov. Duraid Kashmoula told some reporters in Mosul that Zarqawi was believed to have been inside the house. He later retracted that statement.
But speculation that Zarqawi might have been killed began circulating with a report on at least one Arabic-language website.
The shootout took place in the Hay al Sokkar neighborhood of northeast Mosul. Alaa Zeyor, who lives on the street behind the house, said the property had been vacant for five months with a for-rent sign outside.
Sometime in the last two weeks, someone had moved in, she said, noting that her brother had seen a woman and a child there. But in all respects, the house seemed normal, she said.
According to Zeyor, Iraqi police and American troops cordoned off the house at 9 a.m. Saturday, sparking a ferocious battle that lasted until 3 p.m., when explosions shook the house and collapsed parts of its brick walls.
Some Mosul residents said the intensity of the assault reminded them of the raid on a house in another part of the city that ended in the deaths of former President Saddam Hussein's two sons, Uday and Qusai.
The house was still blockaded by police Sunday, but through the broken walls, blood and shell casings could be seen on the kitchen floor.
Police said that it had been a terrorist hide-out and that the fighting had left four Iraqi police officers dead.
"We received reports about a house in the Sokkar area that had some terrorists inside, and they had a lot of ammunition," police Brig. Sayeed Ahmad said. "So we went to the place and asked residents to evacuate the street and the nearby houses."
From the start, he said, the armed group inside refused to come out and launched fierce resistance, which lasted for hours, "until they used up all their ammunition. Then, three of the men blew themselves up inside the house with explosives on their bodies, and that destroyed most of the building," he said.
When the battle ended, he said, U.S. and Iraqi troops dug through the remains of the house and pulled out eight bodies, one of which was a woman's.
She had written a note pinned to her dress, saying in Arabic that she was \o7istishhadia, \f7a seeker of martyrdom, the police brigadier said.
Elsewhere in Iraq, U.S. officials said, a member of the 2nd Marine Division died Sunday of gunshot wounds he had received Saturday in the town of Karmah, and a second Marine died in a roadside bomb explosion that also killed 15 civilians and sparked a battle that killed eight insurgents in Haditha.
The U.S. deaths brought to 2,093 the number of U.S. service members who have died in the Iraq theater since the invasion.
In Basra, in southern Iraq, a roadside bomb killed a British soldier and wounded four others. He was the 98th British service member to die in the Iraq war.
Daniszewski reported from Baghdad and Meyer from Washington. Times correspondent Roaa Ahmed in Mosul contributed to this report.