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2 US soldiers killed, 2 hurt in Baghdad
Updated: 2005-03-27 09:27

Insurgents continued efforts to thwart political progress by blowing up a car Saturday near a U.S. military patrol in Baghdad, killing two American soldiers and wounding two others. A day earlier, the military said, a U.S. Marine died in action in Anbar province, the insurgent heartland stretching from west of Baghdad to the Jordanian and Syrian borders.

Iraqi army soldiers man a checkpoint in Najaf, Iraq Saturday, March 26, 2005. Security has been increased for the upcoming Al-Arbaeen holy day, which commemorates the end of a 40-day mourning period after the anniversary of the 7th century martyrdom of Imam Hussein, one of Shiism's top saints. [AP]

Meanwhile, the Shiite Muslim politician likely to be Iraq's next prime minister said Saturday that the country's long-awaited government could be formed within days, an accomplishment that would mark the end of nearly two months of tortured negotiations after the nation's first free elections in a half-century.

Iraqi politicians, however, have been reporting for at least a month that they were near a deal.

More than 1,520 members of the U.S. military have been killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion, according to an Associated Press count.

Saturday's deaths came as six members of the U.S. congress met with representatives of Iraq's current and future government, on a mission to assess progress toward building a new political and security apparatus that would allow an eventual U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the likely next prime minister, said he believed an agreement on the government was imminent.

"God willing, the government could witness its birth in the coming few days," he said.

Members of the country's new 275-member National Assembly, chosen in historic elections Jan. 30, were sworn in during the parliament's first-ever session March 16. But officials have repeatedly postponed a second session as desultory talks have dragged on over the division of top Cabinet posts among Iraq's religious and ethnic groups.

Jawad al-Maliki, a negotiator from the Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance, said members of parliament have agreed to meet Tuesday, but it was unclear if they would choose a president — expected to be Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani.

Al-Jaafari cautioned against rushing the process, saying: "We need to remember that the era of democratic dialogue is different from the era of the dictatorship practices."

"There are various groups, and we're keen that the process of forming the government be quick," he told reporters. "But we're also keen that this birth has all the requirements needed for success."

There are increasing signs of frustration among the Iraqi people over the slow pace of progress.

One topic that has held up negotiations has been an effort to include Sunni Arabs, the minority that held power under Saddam Hussein, in the Cabinet, al-Jaafari said. Sunnis largely boycotted the Jan. 30 elections, and they are believed to make up the backbone of the insurgency.

"We think that the exceptional circumstances that preceded the elections stood in the way of the full participation of our Sunni Arab brothers," al-Jaafari said, who met with members of the U.S. delegation, as did interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., praised Allawi during the visit, saying he has helped build the base for Iraq's budding democracy.

"There were many doubters," he said. "But obviously Mr. Allawi was not of these doubters, and he is one who was able to portend the future, and he did so with great success."

Also Saturday, a senior Iraqi Defense Ministry official said Iraqi troops backed by U.S. forces detained 121 suspected insurgents and uncovered a massive weapons cache during a joint raid near Musayyib, 40 miles south of Baghdad.

The official said the operation turned up hundreds of Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, as well as car bombs, machine guns, rockets, mortar rounds and other munitions.

Some of the suspected guerrillas planned to attack Shiite Muslims who will be heading to an annual religious celebration in the nearby city of Karbala, the official said.

Later, the U.S. military said American soldiers who were involved in the operation reported only 72 insurgents were taken into custody.

At Camp Bucca, one of three prison camps in Iraq, guards thwarted an attempted prison break when they discovered a 600-foot tunnel that reached beyond the compound fence. No one had yet escaped, said Army Maj. Flora Lee.

Camp Bucca, near the southern city of Umm Qasr, houses 6,049 detainees, nearly two-thirds of all those in Iraq, Lee said.

A bucket cut from a water container and a shovel made from tent supports were used to dig the tunnel, Lee said. The opening was under a floorboard of the compound and was concealed with soil.

Authorities in charge of the compound realized a tunnel was under way after they found soil in latrines and other places, Lee said.

"I'm not aware of any other instances where this has happened," Lee said. "There have been a few other attempts at digging a tunnel but nothing of this size."

U.S. guards fired on prisoners during a riot at Camp Bucca on Jan. 31, killing four detainees and injuring six others.

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