U.S. suffers its third-deadliest day in Iraq

6 more troops raise Saturday's toll to 25

PM ends protection of militia

January 22, 2007|By Borzou Daragahi | Borzou Daragahi,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Six more American troops have been killed in Iraq amid a significant climb in U.S. fatalities at a time when President Bush is seeking to convince a wary public of his plan to escalate the military's presence in the capital and equally volatile Anbar province.

The latest deaths, reported yesterday, increased to 25 the number of U.S. service members killed Saturday, the third-deadliest day for American troops since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. The deaths come as the United States begins to deploy thousands of additional troops into the capital, the first of 21,500 meant to bolster forces that must confront Shiite and Sunni Arab gunmen in a complex peacekeeping and counterinsurgency mission

An additional 44 Iraqis were killed or found dead in political and sectarian violence, including the bombing of a bus in a middle-class Shiite district of the capital that left seven dead and 15 injured. A British soldier also was killed yesterday when a roadside bomb struck his vehicle in the southern city of Basra. Four other British soldiers were injured in the blast.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press, quoting unidentified Iraqi officials, reported yesterday that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has dropped his protection of the Shiite militia of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr after U.S. intelligence convinced him the group had been infiltrated by death squads.

Al-Maliki's turnaround on the Mahdi Army was puzzling because as late as Oct. 31, he had intervened to end a U.S. blockade of Sadr City, the northeast Shiite enclave in Baghdad that is headquarters to the militia. It is held responsible for much of the sectarian bloodshed that has turned the capital into a battle zone over the past year.

Sometime between then and Nov. 30, when the prime minister met with Bush, al-Maliki was convinced of the truth of U.S. intelligence reports that contended, among other things, that his protection of al-Sadr's militia was isolating him in the Arab world and among moderates at home, the two government officials said.

"Al-Maliki realized he couldn't keep defending the Mahdi Army because of the information and evidence that the armed group was taking part in the killings, displacing people and violating the state's sovereignty," said one official. Both he and a second government official who confirmed the account refused to be identified by name because the information was confidential.

Twelve of the U.S. deaths on Saturday came in the crash of a Black Hawk helicopter northeast of Baghdad.

Yesterday, the military reported that at least five more U.S. soldiers and one Marine were killed in separate combat incidents in Baghdad and Anbar province a day earlier.

In Baghdad, one soldier was killed by a roadside bomb while on patrol, officials said. Three other soldiers were wounded in the explosion.

No details were released on the deaths in Anbar.

U.S. officials have yet to announce publicly the cause of the helicopter crash. A witness and an insurgent group claimed hostile fire struck the aircraft, but the military has released no information. CNN, reporting from Washington, quoted an anonymous Pentagon official as saying the crash was likely the result of ground fire.

In Saturday's most audacious insurgent attack, gunmen in sport utility vehicles and uniforms stormed a provincial security building in Karbala as U.S. and Iraqi officials inside discussed plans to protect pilgrims during a coming Shiite religious festival. The gunmen made their way past checkpoints and burst into the provincial security building with guns blazing.

Five U.S. soldiers were killed and three were injured in the attack.

Karbala is a Shiite stronghold that abuts the Sunni Arab heartland. U.S. and Iraqi officials would not disclose whether they suspected Shiite militants or Sunni insurgents for the attack.

"The mystery that accompanied this operation was so deep that we can't accuse any side," the provincial governor, Aqil Khazali, told reporters.

Karbala has fallen under the sway of al-Sadr and his militia. But officials loyal to al-Sadr's movement, which ended a largely symbolic boycott of the Iraqi government yesterday, denied that the Mahdi Army had staged the attack.

"There is an extremist side [that] wants to pretend that this act is done by the Sadr movement, but everybody knows that Mahdi Army doesn't have such abilities," said Haidar Tarfi, an al-Sadr representative in Najaf.

The al-Sadr movement's decision to again embrace the political process may help bolster Iraq's weak central government, which administers the country from behind the walls of the U.S.-protected Green Zone. But U.S. officials have described the movement as the single greatest threat to the overall stability of Iraq and the primary instigator of sectarian violence.

White House officials, over the objections of many in Congress and a majority of Americans, have launched their plan to increase the number of troops in Iraq in hopes of stabilizing the country.

"I think that this is our chance now, our last chance, to have a new strategy which will give us a chance to prevail," Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and a supporter of the president's plan, said in an interview yesterday on NBC television.

Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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