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2007 Deadliest Year For U.S. In Iraq

With nearly two months remaining, 2007 became the bloodiest year of the Iraq war for American troops - 853 dead. The U.S. military on Tuesday announced the deaths of five more soldiers and one sailor, pushing the toll past the previous worst - 850 in 2004.

A senior Navy officer, meanwhile, announced the planned release of nine Iranian prisoners and was at pains to say that a major cache of Iranian-made weapons and bombs displayed for reporters appeared to have been shipped into Iraq before Tehran made a vow to stop the flow of armaments.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week that Iran had made such assurances to the Iraqi government. He did not reveal when the pledge was issued.

While 2007 became the war's deadliest year, there has been a sharp downturn in both Iraqi and American deaths over the past two months and a decline in Iranian weapons deliveries could be one of several factors for the decrease.

"It's our best judgment that these particular EFPs ... in recent large cache finds do not appear to have arrived here in Iraq after those pledges were made," Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, director of the Multi-National Force-Iraq's communications division, told reporters Tuesday.

Among the weapons Washington has accused Iran of supplying to Iraqi Shiite militia fighters are EFPs, or explosively formed projectiles. They fire a slug of molten metal capable of penetrating even the most heavily armored military vehicles, and thus are more deadly than other roadside bombs.

The No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, said last week that there had been a sharp decline in the number of EFPs found in Iraq in the last three months. At the time, he and Gates both said it was too early to tell whether the trend would hold, and whether it could be attributed to action by Iranian authorities. Iran publicly denies that it has sent weapons to Shiite militias in Iraq.

Two of the Iranians who will be freed "in the coming days" were among five captured in a January U.S. raid on an Iranian government facility in Irbil, the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region in the north of the country.

The Americans said the five were members of Iran's elite Quds Force, an arm of the Revolutionary Guards. Iran said the five were diplomats working in a facility that was undergoing preparations to be a consular office.

Smith told reporters the identities of the nine Iranians would be released later and that many of them had been taken prisoner through the course of the war. He said the decision to release the nine was made after they were determined not to be a threat to U.S. forces.

In other developments:

  • The U.S. military said Iraqi troops had discovered 22 bodies in a mass grave northwest of Baghdad over the weekend. It was the second mass grave found in the area in less than a month. After the discovery, U.S. and Iraqi forces launched an operation Sunday, including ground raids and air assaults targeting al Qaeda in the area, the U.S. statement said. About 30 suspects were detained, it said. Two car bomb facilities and a number of weapons caches also were found.
  • President Abdullah Gul said Tuesday that Turkey will do "what it believes to be right" in the fight against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq. But with winter rapidly approaching in the mountainous region, and intense pressure from the U.S. to avoid an all-out cross-border incursion, officials and experts said Turkey will most likely be looking toward a limited offensive involving raids and aerial assaults.
  • U.S. House and Senate negotiators have agreed on a $460 billion Pentagon bill that bankrolls pricey weapons systems and bomb-resistant vehicles for troops, but has little for Iraq and Afghanistan. Democrats have been reluctant to say when Congress might consider President Bush's $196 billion request to pay expressly for combat operations.
  • A new report issued Monday by the Iraqi Red Crescent shows the number of internally displaced people is now greater than the number of Iraqis who have fled the country altogether, seeking refuge in neighboring states like Syria and Jordan. The report said nearly 2.3 million driven from their homes remain inside Iraq.
    The positive moves toward Iran on Tuesday coincided with the opening of two Iranian consulates, the facility in Irbil that was shut by American forces after the raid, and a second in Sulaimaniyah, the largest city in the Kurdish zone.

    Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and Iranian Ambassador Hassan Kazemi Qomi inaugurated the building in Irbil and said both would have full diplomatic status.

    "This is a very important step to enhance relations and facilitate the commerce between the two sides," Barzani told reporters.

    The Iranian ambassador charged the United States ran roughshod over Iraqi sovereignty in conducting the raid in January.

    "The American forces breached Iraqi sovereignty by detaining the five Iranian diplomats at this same office in Irbil," Qomi said.

    "Iran has strong ties with Iraqi society and opening these consulates will strengthen these ties. It will also strengthen commerce and travel between the two sides," Qomi said.

    The U.S.-backed Iraqi government has close ties to neighboring Iran, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has sought to bring the antagonists together in hopes that would reduce violence.

    Iraqi Kurds, like the country's Shiite Arabs, maintain close ties with Shiite-dominated Iran, despite their warm relationship with the U.S.

    Also Tuesday, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh rejected as interference in Iraq's affairs an Iranian offer of troops to help stabilize the country when U.S. forces leave. Iran floated the proposal at the weekend meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, of Iraq's neighbors, the European Union and the G-8.

    "The Iraqi government rejects the plan offered by the Iranian Foreign Ministry. It (the Iraqi government) will not accept interference in Iraq's internal affairs by any country of the region," he said in a statement.

    The grim milestone for American forces was passed despite a noticeable drop in U.S. and Iraqi deaths here in recent months, after a 30,000-strong U.S. force buildup. There were 39 deaths in October, compared to 65 in September and 84 in August.

    The five U.S. soldiers were killed Monday in two separate roadside bomb attacks, Smith, the military spokesman, said.

    "We lost five soldiers yesterday in two unfortunate incidents, both involving IEDs (roadside bombs)," Smith told reporters in Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone.

    Later the military said a sailor had died of wounds from an explosion in Salahuddin province north of Baghdad.

    The previous record - 850 troops in 2004 - occurred mainly in larger, more conventional battles like the campaign to cleanse Fallujah of Sunni militants in November, and U.S. clashes with Shiite militiamen in the sect's holy city of Najaf in August.

    But the American military in Iraq reached its highest troop levels in Iraq this year - 165,000. Moreover, the military's decision to send soldiers out of large bases and into Iraqi communities means more troops have seen more "contact with enemy forces" than ever before, said Maj. Winfield Danielson, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad.

    "It's due to the troop surge, which allowed us to go into areas that were previously safe havens for insurgents," Danielson told the AP on Sunday. "Having more soldiers, and having them out in the communities, certainly contributes to our casualties."

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