As US death toll spikes, Iraq asks troops to stay

BAGHDAD (Reuters) — The killings of two Americans took the monthly US death toll in Iraq on Monday to over 100 for the first time in nearly two years, just a week before elections that could cost President George W. Bush’s Republicans control of Congress.

Pressure has mounted ahead of the November 7 congressional poll to extract US troops from the bloody turmoil afflicting Iraq since Bush ordered the invasion three-and-a-half years ago. But the Iraqi government, despite open friction with Washington this past week, said it wanted their UN mandate extended by a year.

Speaking shortly after a bomb killed 28 people in a Baghdad Shiite slum on a day that saw at least 70 Iraqis killed across the country, Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told Reuters: “The presence of the multinational force is indispensable for the security and stability of Iraq and of the region at the moment.” Iraq has become central to the congressional election campaign and Bush is rallying his Republic supporters, defending his policy and accusing opposition Democrats of lacking a plan. “The Democratic goal is to get out of Iraq. The Republican goal is to win in Iraq,” he told a rally in the state of Georgia. “This election is far from over.” A Marine killed on Sunday in western Anbar province, where troops are fighting Sunni insurgents, and an unidentified member of the military police shot dead by a sniper in east Baghdad took the US military death toll to 101 so far in October.

It was 71 last month, and last passed 100 in January 2005. In all, 2,814 Americans have died in the Iraq conflict.

Commanders say October’s increase is partly due to attacks in the Holy Month of Ramadan.

Since a video was released during Eid showing US soldiers being shot, apparently by snipers, the military has also been looking more closely at shooting incidents.

Following strains between Prime Minister Nuri Maliki’s Shiite-led coalition government and US officials over timetables for steps intended to bring peace, Bush sent National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley for talks with Iraqi officials.

On Monday, he met Maliki, as well as US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Iraqi security adviser Mowaffak Rubaie. Bush and Maliki spoke on Saturday and agreed to beef up cooperation.

Troops to stay

Maliki had complained vocally last week that his forces were short of weapons and training but could be on top in just six months, faster than US expectations, if Americans cooperated.

The White House said Hadley’s visit had long been planned and called media reporting of the sensitivities in relations between Baghdad and Washington “overblown”. Privately, however, top Iraqi officials are expressing profound irritation.

Despite mounting suspicion among the dominant Shiite Islamists about Washington’s rapprochement with the minority Sunnis dominant under Saddam Hussein, Maliki has set no deadline for US troops to leave. When he took office six months ago, he spoke of reviewing the terms on which they were in Iraq.

But his foreign minister, Zebari, made clear Baghdad was now about to ask the UN Security Council to extend by a year the mandate, which runs out on December 31: “At the same time, the Iraqi government is… willing to take more security responsibilities from these forces to do its part.” He also said Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moualem had agreed to visit Baghdad, possibly in November. Washington accuses Syria of fomenting rebellion in Iraq.

Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington warned the United States against leaving Iraq abruptly.

“Since America came into Iraq uninvited, it should not leave Iraq uninvited,” Prince Turki Faisal said after a Washington speech.

He added that dividing Iraq would result in “ethnic cleansing on a massive scale”.

Labourers hit

In the bloodiest attack on Monday, a bomb killed 28 people and wounded 60 in a square in the Shiite Sadr City slum in eastern Baghdad where labourers were gathering in the hope of being hired for casual work, interior ministry sources said.

Five car bombs in different parts of Baghdad killed 13 people.

Sadr City is a stronghold of cleric Moqtada Sadr, who heads the Mehdi Army blamed by Sunnis for sectarian killings. The blast tore through food stalls. Scattered clothes and twisted metal lay amid debris and pools of blood.

“They were poor labourers bringing a daily living to their family. Let’s have Maliki hear that,” one witness said.

While US officials press Maliki to disband Shiite factions like the Mehdi Army, he portrays them as followers of the government and says the main threat is Sunni insurgency.

Saddam was in court again on Monday, facing a charge of genocide against the Kurds in the 1980s. On Sunday, he is due to hear the verdict and a possible death sentence in a separate trial, for crimes against humanity involving Shiites.

The chief prosecutor has said Sunday’s session may be delayed, pushing it till after the US elections. But Zebari said the year-old trial had already “gone on too long”.

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