Saddam Hussein has launched a hunger strike to protest the murder of one of his lawyers, as the US military said it lost men in Iraq, a reminder of the precarious security situation.
And the need for Iraq to take on greater security responsibility for its own security was again highlighted, with Australia announcing a new role for its troops on the heels of Japan's decision to withdraw its forces.
"Saddam and 55 other detainees (former regime officials) are on a hunger strike since yesterday after the killing of Khamis al-Obeidi," said Khalil al-Dulaimi, Saddam's lead lawyer in his trial on crimes against humanity.
One of the former dictator's senior lawyers, Khamis al-Obeidi, was snatched from his home Wednesday and shot dead in a Baghdad street.
Dulaimi said Saddam and the others want US and international committees to give guarantees "for the security of the other defense lawyers."
A US military spokesman, contacted about the protest, said he was "unaware of the strike and will check it out."
Obeidi was the third lawyer for Saddam and seven former henchmen to have been killed since their trial started in October.
The eight are charged with the killing of 148 Shiites from Dujail village following a 1982 assassination attempt on Saddam.
The killing of Obeidi was a yet another example of the precarious security situation in Iraq, where dozens of people are killed each day.
The US military announced that it lost four marines in "enemy action" in the western province of Al-Anbar on Tuesday and a soldier in a roadside bombing south of Baghdad on Wednesday.
That pushed the military death toll since the March 2003 invasion to 2,507, according to an AFP count based on Pentagon figures.
On Tuesday, the military had announced the killing of two of its soldiers by insurgents who had captured them last week.
The deaths also came as seven marines and a navy corpsman faced charges of kidnapping, premeditated murder and other offenses in the death of an Iraqi civilian in April.
The eight, who could face the death penalty, were accused of breaking into the home of Hashim Ibrahim Awad, knocking him to the ground and dragging him away with his hands and feet bound, according to charge sheets released by the US Marine Corps.
The charge sheets do not spell out how Awad was killed, but he was reported to have been shot on April 26 in the town of Hamdania.
As the US military comes under renewed political fire, the rising death toll and sustained security hazard again raised calls back home for the withdrawal of its 130,000 troops, with the divided Democrats offering twin proposals.
One bill would set a July 1, 2007 deadline for a full withdrawal, while the other calls for troops to begin moving out this year, without setting a hard timetable for final withdrawal.
Neither of the measures has any hope of passage in the Republican-dominated Senate.
Earlier this week, Japan announced that it would pull back its 600 troops next month from the southern Muthanna province.
That was followed Thursday by Australia saying it would redeploy its troops to support Iraqi security forces.
Prime Minister John Howard told parliament "this is not the time to leave the Iraqi people to their own devices, in other words to cut and run.
"Australia will not be hostage to a particular timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. Iraq is an active battleground in the international fight against terrorism.
"To leave Iraq prematurely would not only destabilise the Middle East, it would also provide comfort and strength to extremists all around the world."
For his part, British Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted again Wednesday that his country's 7,200 troops would remain in Iraq.
To do so would send the wrong signal to the people of Iraq, who, he insisted, wanted British troops to remain.
"The worst message that we could send is that we are going to walk away when the people who are democratically elected want us to stay. We stay and get the job done and I believe this is the British way."
Meanwhile, Australia's military said it "deeply regrets" an incident in which its troops killed the guard of an Iraqi government minister in Baghdad and wounded several others.
Iraqi officials said guards escorting an Australian trade delegation fired at the bodyguards of Trade Minister Abdel Falah al-Sudani as they left his offices in Baghdad on Wednesday.
And there was no news on the fate of more than 100 employees of Iraq's industry ministry kidnapped by gunmen as they left work north of Baghdad on Wednesday.
Workers at the Hateen and Nasr factories in the restive town of Taji, were ambushed and abducted by at least 50 gunmen who had arrived in five minibuses.
Copyright © 2006 Agence France Presse