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Blast kills 18, wounds 75 in Iraq

A tractor-trailer loaded with Shiite militia rockets exploded Wednesday in a densely populated area of Baghdad, killing 18 people and wounding 75, the U.S. military said. It was the deadliest explosion in Baghdad in more than two months.

Iraqi police said the blast was a suicide truck bomb that struck near the home of an Iraqi police general, killing his nephew and wounding his elderly parents.

But the U.S. military said Shiite extremists were positioning a large truck loaded with rockets and mortars, aiming the weapons at a U.S. combat outpost 700 yards away, when it mistakenly exploded.

Lt. Col. Steve Stover, a U.S. military spokesman, said the militants were trying to attack U.S. troops at a forward operating base and the rockets went off accidentally. “They wouldn't waste rockets like that,” he said.

Stover said the militants responsible for the truck had likely fled recent fighting in Sadr City.

The explosion crumbled several two-story buildings, buried cars under rubble and sheared off a corrugated steel roof.

Also Wednesday, three U.S. soldiers were fatally shot in northern Iraq, and the decaying bodies of at least 23 Iraqis were discovered in a shallow grave and a sewer shaft at separate sites near Baghdad.

The Americans were killed when gunmen opened fire on them in the northern Iraqi village of Hawija, according to a brief military statement.

The area, once a hub for Sunni militants and disaffected allies of Saddam Hussein, is thought to have been pacified in recent months. Last year it hosted one of the largest sign-on ceremonies for tribal sheiks partnering with U.S. forces to fight al-Qaida in Iraq.

The latest U.S. deaths brought to at least 4,090 the number of U.S. military personnel who have died in the Iraq war since it began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

South of Baghdad, Iraqi villagers and soldiers unearthed at least 13 bodies from a shallow, dusty grave in farmland on the outskirts of Latifiyah, a mostly Sunni town that also has some Shiite residents. The bodies were discovered Tuesday, but digging continued a day later.

The U.S. military could not confirm the discovery but said its soldiers, acting on a tip from a local citizen, found at least 10 decomposed bodies Tuesday in a separate location, in the sewer shaft of a building in east Baghdad.

Those victims appeared to have died more than two years ago, Stover said, adding that Iraqi police have taken over the investigation.