BAGHDAD - In a daring ambush, insurgents blasted a U.S. patrol with a roadside bomb Monday and showered survivors with gunfire from a mosque in increasingly lawless Mosul. Five American soldiers were killed in the explosion - even as Iraqi troops moved into the northern city to challenge al-Qaida in Iraq.
Iraqi reinforcements, along with helicopters, tanks and armored vehicles, converged on Mosul for what Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pledged would be a decisive battle against al-Qaida in its last major urban stronghold.
The attack on the U.S. patrol - the deadliest on American forces since six soldiers perished Jan. 9 in a booby-trapped house north of Baghdad - raised the Pentagon's January death count to at least 36.
The toll so far is 56 percent higher than December's 23 U.S. military deaths and marks the first monthly increase since August. But the figures remain well below monthly death tolls of more than 100 last spring.
Tensions in Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, have spiked after the explosion last week in an abandoned apartment that authorities say was used to stash insurgents' weapons and bombs. As many as 60 were killed and 200 injured.
The attackers Monday struck in Mosul's southeastern Sumar neighborhood, a middle-class district popular with former officers in Saddam Hussein's military and now a suspected hotbed for the insurgency.
After the roadside bomb blew apart the American vehicle - killing the five soldiers - gunmen opened fire from a mosque. A fierce gunbattle erupted as U.S. and Iraqi soldiers secured the area, the military said. Iraqi troops entered the mosque but the insurgents had already fled, according to a statement.
'The insurgents are willing to desecrate a place of worship by using it to attack soldiers to further their agenda,' said Maj. Peggy Kageleiry, a U.S. military spokeswoman in northern Iraq.
There was other fighting in the neighborhood. An Iraqi officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information, said three civilians were wounded and helicopters bombarded buildings in the district, the scene of frequent attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces.
Also Monday, insurgents attacked four policemen heading home from work south of Mosul, killing two and wounding the other two, Nineveh provincial police said.
U.S. commanders have described Mosul as the last major Iraqi city with a significant al-Qaida presence, although they have warned insurgents remain a potent force in rural areas south and northeast of Baghdad.
But the military has said Iraqi security forces will take the lead in the city - a major test of Washington's plans to someday shrink the American force and leave it as backup for Iraqi security forces.
Al-Qaida and its supporters would find themselves without a major base of operations if ousted from Iraq's third-largest city, which occupies transport crossroads between Baghdad, Syria and other points. But the fight is expected to be difficult.
Mosul has not seen the groundswell of Sunni anger against al-Qaida that has helped turn the tide against insurgents in Anbar province and other areas.
Monday's attack was the deadliest roadside bombing since Nov. 5, when four soldiers were killed by a blast on their Humvee in the northern Tamim province of which Kirkuk is the capital.