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More troops killed in July than June in Iraq, says military

BAGHDAD, Iraq—More U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq during the first three weeks of July than in the entire month of June, dashing hopes that the handover of sovereignty at the end of last month would ease U.S. losses or bring Iraqis a respite from violence.

During June, 26 American soldiers died in hostile fire in Iraq. As of Thursday, 30 had been killed so far in July, according to numbers from U.S. Central Command.

The fighting between insurgents and American soldiers has not diminished, particularly in Iraq's Anbar province, where U.S. forces had scaled back patrols after more than a year of fierce battles.

On Wednesday, a U.S. Marine convoy was hit by a roadside bomb in Ramadi, the provincial seat, and the firefight that followed raged for most of the day. By the end, 25 insurgents were killed and 14 troops were wounded.

Between 75 and 100 fighters—called "holy warriors" by local Iraqis—took part in the battle, which included intense gunfire, rocket propelled grenades and American air strikes, according to a report from U.S. military officials.

The violence will test the recently installed interim Iraqi government. While the Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, has talked tough about cracking down on the insurgency, he lacks the forces to do more than round up criminals, a less well-armed group that doesn't pose as big a threat to national stability.

Baghdad, itself wracked by car bombs and shootouts, is ringed by rebel strongholds. To the south, the town of Mahmudiya is violent, and farther south, radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr's men control the streets Kufa and Najaf. To the west, Fallujah and Ramadi have seen nonstop insurgent attacks. And to the north, Baqubah and Samarra are growing increasingly restive.

Kidnappings of foreigners have become endemic. Police found a headless body floating in the Tigris River in northern Iraq on Thursday, and it was widely believed to be that of a Bulgarian contractor taken hostage last month. The Philippines pulled its troops out of Iraq this week after a contractor was kidnapped and threatened with decapitation if his country's forces didn't leave Iraq. Currently there are seven men—three Kenyans, three Indians and an Egyptian—being held captive by gunmen demanding that those countries bar citizens from working in Iraq.

The insurgency appears to consist of fighters loyal to deposed dictator Saddam Hussein, radical Iraq Islamic fighters and jihadists who have slipped in from neighboring countries. Unclear is how the different groups cooperate, if at all, as well as their strength in numbers and firepower.

"At the moment, (Allawi's) only effective forces are the US and coalition military," said Juan R.I. Cole, a professor of Modern Middle East and South Asian History at the University of Michigan who is considered a top U.S. expert on Iraq. "They clearly have no idea how to do counter-insurgency effectively and have been steadily losing the country, a trend I expect to continue."

While the U.S. military once did regular neighborhood patrols in Anbar, soldiers have largely pulled back to their bases and now do patrols to keep the major roadways open for convoys rushing in and out of town.

Fighting in the province appears to have worsened since last month.

In June, seven soldiers were killed in Anbar; a number that has jumped to 19 so far this month.

Overall, July's U.S. hostile fire deaths in Iraq are comparable to monthly rates before the April-May surge that preceded the handover of sovereignty.

"It's nothing new—this kind of violence is continuous," said Sabah Kadhim, spokesman for the Iraqi ministry of the interior. "It's obvious that the (American-led military) does not know Iraq, and does not understand Iraqis."

Anbar is part of a wide plot of land commonly referred to as the Sunni Triangle, for its majority Sunni Muslim population.

"The Sunni Arab resistance has not missed a beat, and continues to attempt to undermine the regime, often with some effectiveness," said Cole, in an email to Knight Ridder.

A high-ranking U.S. military official in Baghdad who asked not to be named said that in the Sunni Triangle town of Samarra, there are reports that up to 40 percent of the residents have fled in the city in anticipation of even heavier fighting. During fighting there on Tuesday, U.S. planes reportedly dropped at least one 500-pound bomb on insurgent locations.

While the official denied that Samarra was out of control, he said that "We're providing security on the perimeter. The situation in the city itself is tenuous."


(Hannah Allam and special correspondent Omar Jassim contributed to this report.)


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.