BAGHDAD - Seven U.S. troops were killed by
bombs near Baghdad, the military said on Monday, making October
the bloodiest month for Americans in Iraq since January.
In the far west, where U.S. marines have been fighting for
months to stem a flow of foreign Arab fighters and funds coming
through Syria, local doctors and tribal leaders accused American
forces of killing some 40 civilians in an air strike.
The military said it knew of no civilian deaths and believed
it had killed an al Qaeda leader targeted by precision bombing.
Two roadside bombings near Baghdad on Monday killed six
soldiers and the military announced a Marine had been killed by
a similar device near Falluja on Sunday.
That made October, which saw Iraqis vote for a constitution
and put Saddam Hussein on trial, the worst month for U.S. forces
since January, when attacks by Sunni Arab rebels surged before
an election that brought Kurds and majority Shi'ites to power.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned at the weekend of a
similar increase in bloodshed before another parliamentary vote
in December, although officials hope a decision by Sunni leaders
not to repeat their January boycott of the voting may deprive
the militants of support within Saddam's once dominant minority.
Militants claiming to speak for some nationalist rebels have
said they held fire around the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum
to encourage a big Sunni turnout and may do so again, despite
disappointment that Sunnis narrowly failed to veto the charter.
However, foreign-influenced Islamist radicals like al Qaeda
show no sign of letting up. A suicide bomber lured Shi'ites to
their death with a truck laden with dates on Saturday, killing
30 in a small town north of Baghdad, and there are fears of more
violence around this week's end of the holy month of Ramadan.
Launching one of two big Sunni-led blocs expected to figure
prominently among dozens of parties on the Dec. 15 ballot, one
leader set the tone for his campaign by calling for an end to
U.S. occupation and criticising rivals who returned from exile
after Saddam's fall as beholden to Washington or religion.
"We are ... working for the liberation of our country,"
Saleh al-Mutlak said, launching his Iraqi Unified Front as a
secular pan-Iraqi bloc. "You won't find anyone in our group who
rode into Iraq on an American tank or on a sectarian horse."
Various secular groups accuse the ruling United Alliance,
led by Islamists once exiled in Tehran, of seeking to bring Iraq
under the influence of fellow Shi'ites in non-Arab Iran.
The order parties appear on the lengthy ballot paper will be
drawn by lot on Tuesday. Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari said
that, unlike in January, up to a million Iraqis living abroad
may not be able to vote due to the cost and a tight schedule.
Monday's roadside bomb that killed four soldiers near
Yusufiya, just south of Baghdad, was among the most lethal of
recent weeks. U.S. commanders have been voicing concern about
increasing power and sophistication of such bombs.
Devices capable of penetrating armoured vehicles have become
more common this year, based on technology U.S. and British
officials say has been introduced from Iran.
"We see an adversary that ... continues to develop some
sophistication on very deadly and increasingly precise
standoff-type weapons," Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said.
Two soldiers were killed in a similar attack near Balad, 60
km (40 miles) north of Baghdad, and the military said a marine
was killed by a bomb near Falluja, to the west, on Sunday.
A week after the U.S. death toll since the 2003 invasion
passed the 2,000 mark, it rose to at least 2,026 with the
attacks; they brought to 93 the number of Americans to die in
October, the highest since 107 died in January.
Near the Syrian border on Monday, U.S. aircraft bombed a
house close to Karabila before dawn in what the military said
was a precision strike on an al Qaeda leader.
Hospital doctors in nearby Qaim said 40 people were killed
and 20 wounded, many of them women and children.
"Civilian deaths cannot be verified and hospital officials
frequently make such claims," U.S. spokesman Colonel David Lapan
said. "We believe the targeted terrorist leader was killed."
U.S. forces in Tal Afar, further north on the border and the
site of a fierce battle in September, accused insurgents of
holding the local population in a "grip of fear", in a statement
detailing what a military spokesman said were rebel atrocities.
Twelve bodies were found shot in the head in a shallow grave
along with two who had been beheaded, the military said. A
mentally handicapped boy was forced to throw hand grenades at
Iraqi troops, and another boy confessed to murder and holding
the feet of people while militants cut their heads off.
Before the election, a further hearing is scheduled in the
trial of Saddam and seven co-defendants, including his brother
Barzan al-Tikriti, on charges of crimes against humanity.
Prime Minister Jaafari said on Monday that Barzan would have
access to cancer treatment which he had demanded. Jaafari did
not say he would be freed as he had requested, however.
(Additional reporting by Ammar al-Alwani in Ramadi and Ahmed
Rashid, Hiba Moussa and Claudia Parsons in Baghdad)
© Reuters 2005