Three U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, toll reaches 500.
Guerrillas killed three U.S. soldiers and two Iraqi officials on Saturday, taking the death toll of U.S. soldiers in Iraq to 500 since the war to oust Saddam Hussein began last March.
The mounting toll is a problem for U.S. President George W. Bush in the months before he seeks re-election in November but Washington insisted it would hand over power in Iraq by mid-2004.
The roadside bomb north of Baghdad appeared to be one of the most powerful used against U.S. occupation forces to date - killing the five inside a Bradley armoured vehicle, which resembles a small tank.
After meeting Bush for talks on Friday, the U.S. governor of Iraq, Paul Bremer, said Washington was willing to adjust plans for handing over power to appease Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric, but was unlikely to meet his key demand for elections this year.
Bremer also stressed the June 30 deadline for transferring power to an Iraqi government would not be extended. Coalition troops are, however, scheduled to stay under bilateral agreements with the new government.
In the latest attack, the roadside bomb near the town of Taji, 30 km (19 miles) north of Baghdad, set the Bradley on fire, killing five inside, said Lieutenant Colonel William Macdonald of the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division.
Three U.S. soldiers and two Iraqi civil defence officials were killed and two U.S. soldiers were injured, he said. Troops arrested three Iraqi men in the area shortly after when a truck they were travelling in was found to contain bomb-making material.
The U.S. military also said on Saturday an American soldier died from a "non-hostile gunshot wound" on Friday.
Confirmation of the four American casualties brought the death toll to 500 since the invasion of Iraq began on March 20 last year.
At least 115 soldiers were killed in the invasion itself and some 231 have been killed in hostilities since then. A further 154 have died in accidents or suicides, including the U.S. soldier who died on Friday.
A senior U.S. military official said on Saturday U.S. troops rotating into Iraq will have fewer soldiers, helicopters and tanks and less artillery but should be more mobile and better suited to deal with guerrillas.
By the time power is handed over in June, the U.S. military presence will be downsized to around 105,000 from about 130,000, the official said.
The official said though numbers were being cut, soldiers would be better equipped for the low intensity conflict the military expects to face in the next six to 12 months.
Meanwhile, Japanese troops arrived in Kuwait on Saturday before moving into Iraq next week on a humanitarian mission. It is Japan's most controversial military deployment since World War Two.
In Washington, Bremer expressed "doubts" about Shi'ite demands for elections before the transfer of power, but said: "These are questions that, obviously, need to be looked at." He said Washington may alter the way a transitional Iraqi assembly is selected and make other "clarifications", but gave few details.
Bremer's comments were unlikely to impress Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the most revered men in Iraq, who has demanded that the transitional assembly be elected, instead of chosen by regional caucuses under current U.S. plans.
Aides have said he could issue a fatwa, or edict, banning his followers from cooperating with the U.S. authority in Iraq if his demands were not met.
Mohammed Bahr al-Uloum, a member of Iraq's Governing Council said on a visit to Bahrain, Sistani's demands were reasonable.
"The transitional government should be elected so that it would have credibility with the Iraqi people and would not look like a U.S.-installed body," Bahr al-Uloum told Bahraini Shi'ite Muslims at a mosque in Manama.
[Source: By C. Bryson Hull, Reuters, 17Jan04]
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