Friday, June 16, 2006

US military deaths in Iraq hit 2,500

US military deaths in Iraq hit 2,500
By Fredrik Dahl and Omar al-Ibadi

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The number of U.S. military deaths in Iraq has reached 2,500, the Pentagon said on Thursday, and the military warned it expected the new leader of al Qaeda in Iraq to continue the bloody tactics of his slain predecessor.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis have also been killed since the U.S.-led invasion more than three years ago to overthrow Saddam Hussein, igniting an insurgency by his once-dominant Sunni Arab minority that is showing little sign of easing.

The U.S. military said it believed the real identity of al Qaeda's new leader in Iraq was Egyptian-born Abu Ayyub al-Masri who would adopt the same methods as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Zarqawi, blamed for a campaign of beheadings and suicide bombings that has killed hundreds of civilians, was killed in a U.S. air strike north of Baghdad on June 7.

"Our initial assessment is that (Masri) will probably continue on the same tactics and techniques that Zarqawi did," said Major General William Caldwell, a U.S. military spokesman.

U.S.-led and Iraqi forces have killed more than 104 "anti- Iraqi elements" in hundreds of raids since the death of the Jordanian-born militant, a U.S. statement said.

On a day when at least 24 Iraqis lost their lives in five separate incidents, an Iraqi official said the security forces had seized documents giving key information about the militant group's network and its leaders in the country.

"We believe this is the beginning of the end of al Qaeda in Iraq," national security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie said.

Rubaie said earlier this year the insurgency against the U.S.-backed, Shi'ite-led government had been defeated.

In Thursday's bloodiest attack, gunmen stopped a minibus taking 10 laborers to work in Baquba, forced them to get off and killed them, police in the town north of Baghdad said.

Reuters Television footage showed the dead men lying on stretchers in blood-soaked clothes. "Is this Islam? Is this Islam?" the father of one victim wailed.

Further west, attackers opened fire on a Sunni Arab mosque near Tikrit, Saddam's home city, killing four worshippers.

In the northern town of Tal Afar, which President Bush has held up as an example of progress in Iraq, three roadside bombs killed five Iraqi soldiers.


Al Jazeera television said an Iraqi group, the Imam Ali Battalion, had kidnapped a Turkish technician and his translator north of Baghdad and given Turkey a week to withdraw its envoy from Baghdad.

In Washington, the Pentagon said 18,490 U.S. troops had been wounded in the war, which began in March 2003. On an average day, about two U.S. military personnel are killed.

"Any president who goes through a time of war feels very deeply the responsibility for sending men and women into harm's way, he feels very deeply the pain that the families feel," White House spokesman Tony Snow said.

"One of the things the president has said is that these people will not die in vain."

About 50,000 Iraqi troops, backed by 7,000 U.S.-led troops, launched a crackdown in Baghdad this week aimed at putting pressure on insurgents in a city that sees daily carnage.

Analysts say al Qaeda militants, though behind some of the bloodiest attacks, only make up about 5 percent of insurgents, which are dominated by Saddam loyalists.

"The government is on the attack now ... to destroy al Qaeda and to finish this terrorist organization in Iraq," Rubaie said.

A copy of one of the seized documents, whose authenticity could not be independently verified, did not mention al Qaeda or give specific information about any planned attacks.

Instead, it suggested ways insurgents could counter U.S. raids and propaganda, for example by infiltrating Iraq's armed forces, recruiting new members and manufacturing more weapons.

It also said the best way to get out of "the crisis" was to foster conflict between the United States and another country, like Shi'ite Iran, and by stirring U.S.-Shi'ite tension in Iraq.

Al Qaeda has vowed to fight on and its new leader in Iraq, which it has named as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, vowed in a Web statement on Tuesday to avenge Zarqawi's death.

The name rang few bells and the U.S. military said the new leader was probably Masri, who it says trained in Afghanistan and formed al Qaeda's first cell in Baghdad.

(Additional reporting by Will Dunham in Washington and by Michael Georgy and Ibon Villelabeitia in Iraq)