By Ross Colvin, Reuters, Aug. 3, 2007
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Four U.S. soldiers were killed in Baghdad, the U.S. military said on Friday, underlining U.S. President George W. Bush's grim prediction of "a very difficult August" for U.S. troops in Iraq.
The military said a roadside bomb killed three soldiers on patrol in eastern Baghdad on Thursday during operations targeting Shi'ite and Sunni militants. Eleven others were wounded. A fourth soldier died in combat in a western district.
Bush has sent an extra 30,000 troops to Iraq, despite strong opposition at home, to help quell unrelenting sectarian violence and give Iraq's leaders time to achieve a political deal to promote national reconciliation.
His new military strategy has had some success but at a cost -- May was the deadliest month in 2-1/2 years for U.S. troops with 126 killed, and more than 100 died in both April and June.
The July death toll, initially put at 74, was welcomed by U.S. commanders as a possible sign that the military build-up was bearing fruit. But by Friday the toll had climbed to 81 on the icasualties.org Web site, on a par with February and March.
U.S. commanders say they expect higher casualties as more troops confront Shi'ite militias and Sunni insurgents in areas they had previously stayed out of.
In May, Bush predicted that Iraqi militants, particularly Sunni Islamist al Qaeda, would attempt to influence the U.S. debate on the war by launching attacks ahead of a military assessment of the strategy due in September.
"It could be a bloody ... it could be a very difficult August," he said. Five U.S. soldiers have now died in the first two days of the month.
Roadside bombs are the biggest killer of U.S. troops, particularly armor-piercing explosively formed penetrators, which Washington says are being supplied to Shi'ite militant groups in Iraq by neighboring Shi'ite Muslim Iran.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis have died in the violence, victims of a wave of sectarian violence and criminal gangs taking advantage of a security vacuum left by Iraq's weak central government and poorly motivated security forces.
In the northern city of Kirkuk, relatives mourned the deaths of five brothers who were kidnapped and killed after their desperately poor family was unable to pay a $100,000 ransom.
Police had found a sixth brother, a small boy, weeping but unharmed next to the bodies, which had been bound and shot in the head. Many such murders take place every day in Iraq, but the presence of the small boy at the scene touched a nerve.
Reuters pictures showed an uncle of one of the men, turbaned and wearing white traditional Arab robes, weeping and curled up next to a wooden coffin, the body of his nephew wrapped in a thick patterned blanket.
A cousin of the men said four of them, all day laborers, had gone to help their brother paint the local hospital in al-Rashaad district, about 40 km southwest of Kirkuk.
On their way home to Kirkuk they were kidnapped by gunmen who demanded a ransom. When the family said they could not afford to pay, the were told: "Then come and get their bodies."
In other violence, gunmen in the southern holy Shi'ite city of Najaf killed an imam with links to reclusive spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in a drive-by shooting.
Fadil al-Aqeel was imam of the al-Hassan mosque in Najaf. Several aides to Sistani have been killed in recent months, residents say.