A Grim Milestone In Iraq

U.S. soldiers from the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment carefully watch an anti-American demonstration in Baghdad, Dec. 25, 2006.
The U.S. military death toll in Iraq has surpassed the number of deaths in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, according to an Associated Press count.

The U.S. military announced the deaths of two soldiers in a bomb explosion southwest of Baghdad on Monday. The deaths raised the number of troops killed to 2,974 since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003 – that's one more than the number of people killed on 9/11.

"The joint patrol was conducting security operations in order to stop terrorists from emplacing roadside bombs in the area," the military said in a statement on the latest deaths.

"As they conducted their mission, a roadside bomb exploded near one of their vehicles."

Another soldier was wounded in the explosion, the military said.

Elsewhere in Iraq, Christmas was another brutal day, with at least 14 people dead and dozens more injured in a series of bombings. Another 40 people were found dead, apparent victims of sectarian kidnappings and torture.

In other developments:

  • The White House said Monday that U.S. troops in Iraq detained at least two Iranians and released two others who had diplomatic immunity. CBS News chief White House correspondent Jim Axelrod reports the Iranians were captured in two raids last week and are suspected of planning attacks on U.S. and Iraqi security forces.
  • Backed by tanks, British soldiers raided a police station in the southern city of Basra on Monday, killing seven gunmen in an effort to stop renegade Iraqi officers from executing their prisoners, the British military said. After the British stormed the police station, they removed the prisoners, who showed evidence of torture, then evacuated the building before blowing it up.
  • In another sign of lawlessness in Basra, gunmen on Monday robbed $740,000 from a bank about half a mile from the raided police station.

    In Monday's violence, a car bomb in Baghdad struck a mostly Shiite district to the east that attracts crowds of shoppers and laborers looking for work.

    In another part of eastern Baghdad, a suicide bomber exploded in a minibus, killing three people and injuring 19, police said.

    Another suicide bomber killed two policemen at a checkpoint at a university entrance in Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, a stronghold of the Sunni-dominated insurgency.

    The deaths came a day after Iraq's interior minister said attacks targeting police had killed some 12,000 officers since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein.

    Christians attended Christmas services in Baghdad and northern Iraq, home to most of Iraq's 800,000 Christians. Some in Baghdad stayed home, however, fearing violence.

    Christians are on the fringes of the conflict, which mostly involves Shiite Muslims and Sunni Arabs — but they have been targeted by Islamic militants.

    "I hope next year will bring good things and unite all Iraqis because there is no difference between Christians and Muslims," said Abu Fadi, a worshipper who does not use his Christian name because he fears for his safety. "May God bring relief from this."

    Meanwhile, CBS News correspondent Randall Pinkston reports American soldiers at Camp Victory in Baghdad held onto as much of the holiday spirit as they could, away from home and family.

    It's "something we have to adapt to as soldiers, just take in stride and keep moving," said U.S. Army Pvt. Tony Hill.

    Specialist Nasstassia Stize said her Christmas wish as "to spend Christmas at home next year – that's it."

    In Baghdad, a spokesman for Iraqi President Jalal Talabani confirmed that U.S. troops had detained two Iranians who were in Iraq at his invitation. "The president is unhappy about it," said Hiwa Osman, Talabani's media adviser.

    He gave no further details, and the U.S. military said it had no comment.

    "We suspect this event validates our claims about Iranian meddling, but we want to finish our investigation of the detained Iranians before characterizing their activities," White House spokesman Alex Conant said Monday. "We will be better able to explain what this means about the larger picture after we finish our investigation."

    He said that a routine raid on suspected insurgents netted the Iranians. Two had diplomatic immunity and were released to the Iraqi government, which then released them to Iran, Conant said.