Published on Saturday, January 17, 2004 by Reuters
Three U.S. Soldiers Killed in Iraq, Toll Reaches 500
by C. Bryson Hull
TIKRIT, Iraq - Guerrillas killed three U.S. soldiers and two Iraqi officials on Saturday, taking the death toll of U.S. soldiers in Iraq to 500 since the war to oust Saddam Hussein began last March.
The mounting toll is a problem for President Bush in the months before he seeks re-election in November but Washington insisted it would hand over power in Iraq by mid-2004.
The roadside bomb north of Baghdad appeared to be one of the most powerful used against U.S. occupation forces to date -- killing the five inside a Bradley armored vehicle, which resembles a small tank. Previous attacks on U.S. convoys have tended to cause casualties aboard lighter vehicles such as trucks.
After meeting Bush for talks on Friday, the U.S. governor of Iraq, Paul Bremer, said Washington was willing to adjust plans for handing over power to appease Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric, but was unlikely to meet his key demand for elections this year.
Bremer also stressed the June 30 deadline for transferring power to an Iraqi government would not be extended. Coalition troops are, however, scheduled to stay under bilateral agreements with the new government.
He will meet U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Monday and is expected to press him to send a U.N. team to Iraq to convince Shi'ites that direct elections are not feasible or suggest a workable compromise.
In the latest attack, the roadside bomb near the town of Taji, 30 km (19 miles) north of Baghdad, set the Bradley on fire, killing five inside, said Lieutenant Colonel William Macdonald of the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division.
Three U.S. soldiers and two Iraqi civil defense officials were killed and two U.S. soldiers were injured, he said. Troops arrested three Iraqi men in a sweep of the area shortly after when a truck they were traveling in was found to contain bomb-making material.
Taji was at the heart of Iraq's military-industrial complex during Saddam's rule and lies in an area coalition forces call the "Sunni triangle" -- dominated by members of Saddam's Sunni community where opposition to the U.S. troops has been fiercest.
The U.S. military also said on Saturday an American soldier died from a "non-hostile gunshot wound" on Friday.
Confirmation of the four American deaths brought the death toll to 500 since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began on March 20 last year.
At least 115 soldiers were killed in the invasion itself and some 231 have been killed in hostilities since then. A further 154 have died in accidents or suicides, including the U.S. soldier who died on Friday.
Meanwhile, Japanese troops arrived in Kuwait on Saturday ahead of a humanitarian mission in Iraq in the country's most controversial military deployment since World War II.
The troops move into Iraq next week and any casualties could rock Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's government.
"Our mission is to support the Iraqi people by conducting water purification and water supply and medical support and construction," said the commanding officer of the 35-strong Japanese team, Colonel Nasahisa Sato.
He declined to give any details on Japanese troop movements or the size of the overall mission.
In Berlin, NATO's new secretary-general said the alliance could play a greater role in bringing stability to Iraq but its priority remained its peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan.
The comments by Jaap de Hoop Scheffer come amid signs that Germany and France -- which both saw a sharp deterioration in relations with Washington over their opposition to the war in Iraq -- may not stand in the way of expanding NATO's role there.
In Washington, Bremer expressed "doubts" about Shi'ite demands for elections before the transfer of power, but said: "These are questions that, obviously, need to be looked at."
He said Washington may alter the way a transitional Iraqi assembly is selected and make other "clarifications," but gave few details.
Bremer's comments were unlikely to impress Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the most revered men in Iraq, who has demanded that the transitional assembly be elected, instead of chosen by regional caucuses under current U.S. plans.
Aides have said he could issue a fatwa, or edict, banning his followers from cooperating with the U.S. authority in Iraq if his demands were not met.
Additional reporting by Fiona O'Brien in Baghdad
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