IRAQ – Attacks on US troops reached a peak in the last quarter of 2006

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THE US military has reported the deaths of three more troops, two in blasts and one hit by small arms fire in insurgent dominated Diyala province.

The Pentagon reported that violence in the country hit a peak in the last quarter of 2006 as a bus bombing outside a factory in a central Iraqi town killed four workers and wounded two dozen people on Thursday.

The bus bomb took place outside a vehicle factory in Iskandiriyah 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of Baghdad.

Police said the blast occurred outside the Mechanical Industrial Development vehicle concern, one of the few factories still operating in Iraq, at around 8.15 am (0515 GMT) as workers were arriving for the morning shift.

Iskandiriyah, which lies in the so-called ‘triangle of death’, boasts a number of factories but many are closed or operating at minimum capacity.

The US military said the three soldiers were killed while nine were injured in Diyala province, where reinforcements were sent this week as part of a US troop ‘surge’ to quell violence in Baghdad and surrounding areas.

A military statement said soldiers from Task Force Lightning, based in executed Saddam Hussein’s hometown Tikrit, were attacked while conducting combat operations on Wednesday.

‘Two soldiers died as a result of injuries sustained from explosions near their vehicles in separate attacks.

‘Another soldier died as a result of injuries sustained from small arms fire,’ it added.

The deaths brought to 3,203 the US military’s losses in Iraq since the invasion, according to a count based on Pentagon figures.

The US ‘surge’ of troop reinforcements is in support of a new security plan called Operation Fardh al-Qanoon (Imposing Law), which aims to halt sectarian violence in and around Baghdad.

US President George W Bush at the weekend approved another 2,400 soldiers and 2,200 military police, which will support the 21,500 extra troops he has already announced. By June more than 160,000 US troops will be in theatre.

A Pentagon report released on Wednesday said Iraq had faced the maximum number of attacks since the invasion to topple Saddam Hussein during the last quarter of 2006.

‘Although most attacks continue to be directed against coalition forces, Iraqi civilians suffer the vast majority of the casualties,’ the report released in Washington said.

A chart showed a surge in sectarian incidents from September through December with murders spiking to about 1,300 in December alone, from less than 100 in January 2006.

During the last three months of the year, Baghdad experienced a record 45 attacks a day, it said.

‘The total number of attacks on and casualties suffered by coalition forces, the ISF (Iraqi Security Forces), and Iraqi civilians for the October-December reporting period were the highest for any three month period since 2003,’ it said.

‘Casualties from these attacks decreased slightly in January, but remained troublingly high.’

The quarterly report on ‘Stability and Security in Iraq’ did not assess security conditions since the United States increased the number of troops in Baghdad to try to break the spiral of sectarian violence.

But a top US commander in Iraq on Wednesday said that since the launch of the Baghdad security operation on February 14, attacks had reduced.

‘There has been an over 50 per cent reduction in murders and executions,’ the spokesman for US forces in Iraq, Major General William Caldwell, told reporters in Baghdad.

‘We are seeing positive signs on the streets,’ said Caldwell. ‘We know there is a decrease in violence, but we still need to be patient.’

Iraq’s spokesman for Fardh al-Qanoon, Brigadier General Qassim Atta al-Mussawi, said 265 civilians and 57 servicemen had died since the plan commenced compared with the preceding month when 1,440 people died.

US troops killed an Iraqi soldier and wounded three more during a raid targeting an Al-Qaeda network in the restive northern city of Mosul, the military reported on Thursday.

The incident occurred when US-led forces came under small arms fire attack during the raid.

‘Coalition forces returned fire, killing one and wounding three others,’ a military statement said. ‘Coalition forces later identified the armed men as Iraqi army soldiers.

‘Coalition forces employ every effort to reduce risk to friendly forces, and they reserve the right to take appropriate self-defence measures when the situation warrants.’

Meanwhile, the United States looks poised to take action against Sudan to halt the fighting in Darfur.

Experts and human rights activists who have long been critical of US inactivity on Darfur said improved US-China cooperation in dealing with global crises coupled with growing impatience over Sudan’s defiance may have created the diplomatic critical mass needed for the crackdown on Khartoum.

The State Department signalled its readiness to act Wednesday by announcing that it would seek a new UN Security Council resolution aimed at forcing the Sudanese government to honour past promises to allow a UN-led peacekeeping force into Darfur.

‘It is simply the case that the Sudanese government needs to recognise that the international community can’t stand idly by while people suffer,’ Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said.

‘We are indeed looking at other options, including options that might require further UN action,’ she said.

President George W Bush’s special envoy for Darfur, Andrew Natsios, meanwhile told several human rights groups in a conference call on Wednesday that the administration was preparing its own ‘Plan B’ package of economic sanctions against Sudan, according to a participant in the call.

The announcements came after Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir wrote to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon last week backing away from a deal reached in November to let a 20,000-strong, UN-led peacekeeping force into Darfur.

The letter was the latest step in a four-year campaign by Beshir to prevent international intervention in Darfur, where more than 200,000 people have died and at least two million have been left homeless in a civil war in which government-backed militia have been fighting rebel movements said to have been armed by the West and politically backed by it.

Many analysts attributed the lack of the US’ follow-through measures against the Sudan to Bush’s preoccupation with Iraq and ‘axis of evil’ foes Iran and North Korea.

‘Our position in the world is obviously complicated by what’s gone on in Iraq, making it that much more difficult to mobilise coalitions, no matter how sincere and how substantial our case is against Sudan over Darfur,’ said Jonathan Morgenstein of the US Institute of Peace.

US ardour for action was also cooled by hostility from China, a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council which buys most of Sudan’s oil and historically opposes international meddling in internal conflicts that could encourage similar moves over Tibet, Morgenstein said.

But with little prospect for any successful outcomes in Iraq, Bush and Rice have been turning their diplomatic attention to other, potentially solvable, crises.

They have notably worked closely with China in using UN sanctions to lead North Korea into last month’s historic nuclear disarmament agreement and as a weapon to challenge Iran’s nuclear programme.

Alex Meixner of the Save Darfur coalition said there were new signs China might be ready for tougher action against Sudan after its ambassador to the UN described Beshir’s latest backtracking on Darfur ‘disappointing.’

He noted that the November agreement Beshir has backed away from came at a meeting involving the United Nations, European Union, US, Russia, China and African states.

‘He’s now not only going back on his word to the US, but also to China, Russia and his African allies,’ Meixner said.

One member of an organisation involved in Darfur, who has spoken privately with US officials, recently said he had detected a new determination to act.

‘The administration is seeing this as the right opportunity to launch into some of their “Plan B” actions because there seems to be more of an appetite for it overseas,’ he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The US is already forming an Africa Command to oversee US military operations against Sudan and other African countries that are perceived as being ‘unfriendly’.