BAGHDAD - The four-year US military death toll in Iraq passed 3,500 after a
soldier was reported killed in a roadside bombing in Baghdad. A British soldier
was also shot to death Thursday in southern Iraq, as Western forces find
themselves increasingly vulnerable under a new strategy to take the fight to the
The British ambassador to Iraq,
meanwhile, signaled his government was ready to talk to those behind the
abduction of five Britons in Baghdad last month. Iraqi officials have said they
believe the Britons were taken by the Mahdi Army militia, which is largely loyal
to the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
In this photo released by the US Air Force, Honor Guard
members from the 407th Expeditionary Group in Ali Air Base, Iraq, perform
a flag folding ceremony during a Fallen Airmen Ceremony in remembrance of
Staff Sgt John Self at Ali Air Base on Monday May 28, 2007. [AP]
In a rare televised interview, al-Sadr blamed the United States for Iraq's
woes, often referring to it as "the occupier" and accusing it of being behind
the sectarian violence, the growing schism between Iraq's majority Shiites and
once-dominant Sunni Arabs and economic hardships.
"We are now facing a brutal Western assault against Islam," he said, draped
in his traditional black robe and turban. "This agenda must be countered with a
cultural resistance," he said.
The mounting US casualties, most by makeshift bombs placed in potholes on
roads or in fields where troops conduct foot patrols, come as American troops
work with Iraqi forces on the streets and in remote outposts as part of a joint
crackdown on sectarian violence.
A US soldier was killed and two others were wounded Wednesday when a roadside
bomb exploded during combat operations in a southwestern section of Baghdad, the
military said Thursday. At least 3,501 US service-members have been killed since
the beginning of the war, according to an Associated Press count.
They include at least 23 American deaths during the first six days of June -
an average of almost four per day, a similar pace to that in May. American
troops deaths reached 127 in May, making it the third-deadliest month since the
war started in March 2003. The average is nearly double the roughly two a day
killed in June 2006.
A British soldier also was shot to death and three others were wounded
Thursday while on patrol in southern Iraq, according to Britain's Ministry of
Defense, pushing to at least 150 the number of deaths reported by the British
Separately, the British ambassador to Iraq, Dominic Asquith, appealed to the
kidnappers of five Britons to release them or open negotiations.
The five - four security guards and a consultant - were abducted from the
Iraqi Finance Ministry on May 29 by some 40 heavily armed men who then rode off
with them in the direction of the sprawling Shiite district of Sadr City.
Iraqi officials say the Mahdi Army may have grabbed the men in retaliation
for the killing by British forces of the militia's commander in the southern
city of Basra.
"I ask those holding them to release them so they may return to their
families," Asquith said. Then, in a clear offer to consider demands, he added,
"We have people here in Iraq who are ready to listen to any person about this
incident, or any person who may be holding these men and who may wish to
The Mahdi Army, which fought US forces in 2004, has been blamed for many of
the sectarian attacks in Iraq. The US accuses Iran of fueling the violence by
providing weapons and training fighters.
On Thursday, al-Sadr said he maintains "friendship and good relations" with
Iran but rejects any interference by Tehran in Iraq's affairs.
"I must maintain friendship and good relations with Iran but nothing else,"
The anti-American cleric dodged a question about his disappearance from
public view during which he was believed to have been in Iran.
The interview on Iraqi state television was believed to be al-Sadr's first
since he re-emerged in public nearly two weeks ago. The program, which aired
Thursday, was taped Sunday at his office in the holy city of Najaf, according to
his aides. Al-Sadr had dropped out of sight at the start of a US-Iraqi security
crackdown in February.
Despite the crackdown, bombings, shootings, mortar attacks and
execution-style killings left at least 63 Iraqis dead nationwide Thursday. They
included 32 unidentified men who were handcuffed, blindfolded and shot to death
in Baghdad - the apparent victims of so-called sectarian death squads usually
run by Shiite militias like the Mahdi Army.