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3 More U.S. Soldiers Killed In Iraq

Three U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi woman translator were killed Saturday in separate incidents, as the country's largest Sunni party appealed to authorities to end the siege of Sunni villages northeast of Baghdad.

Also Saturday, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware said that he was pessimistic about Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's ability to reach out to Sunni Arabs and curb sectarian violence after meeting with the prime minister in Baghdad.

The three Americans were assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and died in fighting in the western province of Anbar, the U.S. military said in a statement. They were the first U.S. fatalities reported in Iraq since Tuesday and the eighth so far this month.

Iraqi police said the translator, whose name was not released, was killed in a drive-by shooting in southwestern Baghdad. She worked as an interpreter for the Americans but was off-duty at the time of the shooting, police Capt. Maithem Abdul-Razaq said.

Interpreters and others working for the Americans have long been targeted by insurgents for "collaborating" with "occupation forces."

In a statement Saturday, the Iraqi Islamic Party said U.S. and Iraqi troops had surrounded 15 mostly Sunni villages in near Muqdadiyah, about 60 miles northeast of Baghdad, making it difficult for civilians to move in the area.

The statement called on Iraqi and U.S. forces to allow food and medicine to enter the villages and compensate farmers for damage to their crops.

Meanwhile, Biden, along with Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island who is also at the talks, said Nouri al-Maliki assured them his new government will reach out to Sunni Arabs and crack down on Shiite militias believed responsible for much of the sectarian violence.

But Biden said Saturday that he was pessimistic about the Shiite leader's abilities to do so.

Biden also said he was unconvinced of al-Maliki's dedication to fixing the problem of troubled Sunni-Shiite relations amid rising sectarian tensions.

"I'm not sure how much running room he has. I'm not even sure how much running room he wants," Biden said in a telephone conference call after making his seventh visit to Iraq.

Biden, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a U.S. presidential hopeful, held talks with al-Maliki, as well as the ministers of interior and defense.

He was accompanied by Sen. Jack Reed who said U.S. troops could begin leaving the country as early as this year.

"The prime minister indicated that it is feasible to begin to redeploy a small portion of our troops, perhaps this year," Reed, D-R.I., said. "That is based upon the training of the Iraqi security forces."

"It's time to suggest, to show the Iraqi forces that they have to do the job and to confirm the fact that they have made progress," Reed said later. "The feeling is, as long as we're there to be the failsafe, they won't take the initiative."

Al-Maliki said shortly after taking office he hoped to take over security for all of Iraqi's 18 provinces within 18 months, or by the end of 2007.

Biden told reporters earlier that he was reassured that al-Maliki "appears to be prepared to take concerted action against militias and he is opened to the insurgents, those in the insurgency who have not committed serious crimes against humanity actually to be brought into the political process."

Shiite militias have been blamed for much of the violence that increased sharply following the Feb. 22 bombing of a holy Shiite shrine in the central city of Samarra.

Reed said that after meetings with military officials, the senators believe that "the major deficiency remains the question of leadership on the senior level and the ability of the government to support troops in the field."

He said that the wear-and-tear on the U.S. military was showing, despite their "incredible" service. For example, he said, the military is flying aircraft "way over" the regularly allotted hours for the aircraft during peacetime.

"There's a fear that at some point the patience of the Iraqi people will be sapped," he said.

In other developments:
  • An investigation into the cover-up of the alleged murder of 24 Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha last November concludes Marine officers at every level up to and including the colonel who commanded the regiment failed to investigate inaccurate and conflicting reports of how the civilians were killed.
  • President Bush asked Congress for a $50 billion down payment for next year's Iraq and Afghanistan war costs. Almost half the money would be to provide food, water and medical support for troops, purchase parts and fuel for equipment and maintain military facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. About a quarter of the funds would be for replacing damaged weapons and equipment.
  • The Army private accused of raping an Iraqi woman and killing her and her family was discharged for what was described as an "anti-social personality disorder." The Army says it discharged more than 1,000 last year for personality disorders. That total represents about 1.2 percent of the soldiers given early discharges during the year ending last September.
  • The individual that the U.S. military says it captured in Sadr City is described as the head of multiple insurgent cells in Baghdad, reports . Apparently, his followers have kidnapped, tortured and murdered Iraqi civilians and he's also in charge of what they're calling a punishment committee.

    Last week, the Iraqi military announced operations in the Muqdadiyah area after an increase in insurgent activity there. The mostly agricultural area sits astride a major highway between Baghdad and Kurdish areas to the north and is located in a province where tensions between Shiites and Sunnis are running high.

    The Iraqi Islamic Party is headed by one of Iraq's two vice presidents, Tariq al-Hashimi, who the Americans are hoping can convince disaffected fellow Sunnis to abandon the insurgency and participate in political life so the U.S. can begin withdrawing its troops.

    Also on Saturday, a mortar barrage struck homes in a Shiite area in the religiously mixed area of Dora in Baghdad, killing four people and wounding six, Capt. Firas Queti said.

    Gunmen opened fire earlier Saturday on a Shiite family trying to move out of Dora to the Shiite city of Karbala. Police said five family members were wounded in the attack in Dora, where sectarian tensions run high.

    Also in Dora, gunmen in two cars stopped a vehicle on a city street, forced the two passengers to disembark and killed them in front of horrified bystanders, according to police.

    Elsewhere, gunmen Saturday killed three people working in an ice cream shop in the mostly Shiite Baghdad neighborhood of Nahrawan, police Lt. Fikrat Mohammed said.

    Three mortar shells exploded in a mostly Shiite area of southern Baghdad, killing three people and wounding three children, police said.

    Police also reported finding four bodies Saturday in separate locations in eastern and western Baghdad. They were believed the latest victims of sectarian death squads.

    A car bomb also exploded in a public garage near a Shiite mosque in western Baghdad, killing two people and wounding nine, Lt. Maitham Abdul-Razzaq said. The explosion also damaged five other parked cars and slightly damaged the mosque.

    Meanwhile, gunmen in two speeding car opened fire Saturday on a Sunni mosque in west Baghdad's Ghazaliya neighborhood. Mosque guards returned fire and the attackers fled, police Capt. Jamil Hussein said.

    The incidents occurred a day after at least 17 others died in a wave of bombings and mortar attacks against mostly Sunni mosques in the Baghdad area and northern Iraq. A Sunni cleric was also kidnapped in the capital, a Sunni official said.

    Sectarian violence has forced thousands of Iraqis to move to different neighborhoods or cities where their sect is predominant. The Interior Ministry estimated earlier this month that nearly 4,000 families — or about 23,670 people — have been forced to relocate to other neighborhoods in the Baghdad area alone.