14 US troops die in Iraq

BAGHDAD (AFP) — At least 14 more American troops were killed in Iraq over the weekend, the military said Sunday, as a former US commander warned victory in the intractable conflict was now beyond reach.

Meanwhile, suspected Sunni insurgents killed 15 Iraqis in attacks north of Baghdad as their Shiite militia counterparts clashed with US and Iraqi forces south of the war-torn capital.

The latest fighting erupted after a former commander of American forces in Iraq, retired army Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, said the United States could no longer win the war and must find a way to stave off defeat.

“I am absolutely convinced that America has a crisis in leadership at this time,” Sanchez told AFP in an interview given in Texas.

“I think if we do the right things politically and economically with the right Iraqi leadership we could still salvage at least a stalemate, if you will — not a stalemate but at least stave off defeat,” he said.

Sanchez retired last year and is the highest-ranking former military leader yet to suggest the Bush administration fell short in Iraq. He commanded troops there between June 2003 and June 2004. The general was speaking out amid a bitter debate in the United States over the future of their military commitment in Iraq, where more than 140,000 GIs are battling to quell sectarian violence and defeat a violent insurgency.

Their current commander, General David Petraeus, hopes this year’s so-called surge in US troop numbers will eventually tamp down the violence enough to allow Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to kick-start a political peace process.

US command reported a total of 14 more soldiers killed in action in Iraq in a series of bomb attacks and clashes with insurgent fighters over three days.

In the most deadly single attack, four soldiers were killed in Baghdad on Sunday when a makeshift bomb exploded as they were conducting an operation to seal off a neighbourhood and search it for enemy fighters.

Bomb attacks elsewhere in the war-torn capital accounted for two more soldiers on Sunday and two on Saturday, while similar incidents and ambushes outside Baghdad saw six more deaths, military statements said. The latest fatalities brought the number of US servicemen to have died in combat and from other causes in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion to 3,488, according to an AFP count based on Pentagon figures.

In Diyala province, north of Baghdad, Al Qaeda-led Sunni insurgents are fighting a classic insurgency against US forces and their beleaguered Iraqi government allies against a backdrop of sectarian attacks.

On Sunday, a car bomb attack aimed at a police patrol instead ripped through a fruit and vegetable market and killed 10 people, one of them a police officer, Diyala police spokesman Lieutenant Ali Ahmed said.

Elsewhere in the province, on the highway between Muqdadiyah and Baghdad, gunmen stopped a commuter minibus and raked its passengers with gunfire, killing five people and wounding seven, police said.

In Baghdad itself, US helicopter gunships strafed Shiite fighters preparing to fire a volley of rockets at the fortified Green Zone, killing four of them and foiling the attack, spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Scott Bleichwehl said.

Paratroopers pursued the surviving fighters into nearby Sadr City, a bastion of radical cleric Moqtada Sadr’s Mehdi Army, and made six arrests.

South of the capital, however, an entirely different conflict was under way.

In the Shiite town of Diwaniyah, Sadr’s Mehdi Army was fighting the Iraqi police, which has been infiltrated by supporters of his Shiite rival and fellow preacher Abdel Aziz Hakim.

Police officials said officers had shot and wounded a fugitive leader late on Saturday during a failed arrest attempt, triggering overnight clashes which by Sunday had drawn in helicopters from the US-led coalition.

In Baghdad this week, the bulk of the fighting has been from yet another conflict, this time a violent dispute between two former allies in the war against the United States — Al Qaeda and the Islamic Army of Iraq.

Both are Sunni insurgent groups opposed to US troops and Maliki’s Shiite-led government, but last week fighting erupted between them in the west Baghdad district of Amiriyah, again drawing in the security forces.

Amiriyah residents told AFP the district’s nationalist resistance groups had rejected Al Qaeda, triggering a local civil war.

On Sunday, Al Qaeda gave its own account of the fighting in an Internet statement issued in the name of its Iraqi front organisation, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq.

It complained that a bomb had killed one of its fighters  as he tried to efface some graffiti abusing Al Qaeda, leading to a dispute.

“One of the Islamic Army’s emirs threatened one of our battalions’ emirs. The Islamic Army opened fire on him and killed him along with two others and injuring a fourth who was with them,” the  group claimed.

Meanwhile, in northern Iraq, US forces “detained seven suspected terrorists in overnight raids targeting Al Qaeda in Iraq network in the Mosul and Taji areas,” a statement said.

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