BAGHDAD,(Reuters) – The U.S. military announced the deaths of two more soldiers in Iraq on Tuesday, taking October’s death toll to an unusually high 103 just a week before U.S. congressional elections.
The mayhem in Iraq could cost President George W. Bush’s Republicans control of Congress on Nov. 7, opinion polls suggest. But there were new calls from Iraq for Americans to stay on to avert civil war, including from Iraq’s president.
A U.S. soldier was shot in west Baghdad, an area dominated by Saddam Hussein’s once dominant Sunni Arab minority, and another was killed when a bomb blasted his vehicle to the south of the capital on Monday, the U.S. military said in statements.
October’s figure is the fourth highest monthly death toll of the war and passed the 100 mark for the first time since January last year.
U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney said those attacking American troops were well aware of the elections, in which Bush’s invasion of Iraq 3-1/2 years ago has become a key issue.
“Whether it’s al Qaeda or the other elements that are active in Iraq, they are betting on the proposition they can break the will of the American people,” he said. “They’re very sensitive to the fact that we’ve got an election scheduled.”
Despite the daily attacks on U.S. forces and violence between Iraq’s own factions, Iraqi leaders said the situation was not hopeless but international forces needed to stay on for now.
“Civil war can be avoided,” President Jalal Talabani told French newspaper Le Figaro ahead of a state visit to Paris. “The international coalition will only withdraw when Iraqi security forces are ready to take over.”
The Pentagon said U.S. troop numbers in Iraq were now at 150,000, the highest this year. It said that was partly due to homebound soldiers staying on to train incoming units.
In Sadr City, a sprawling Baghdad slum dominated by the Mehdi Army Shi’ite militia, shops were closed and many workers stayed at home, observing a call from powerful cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to protest at a “siege” of the area’s 2 million people by troops hunting an American soldier kidnapped a week ago.
The U.S. military said Iraqi forces arrested three people there overnight as part of the hunt for the linguist of Iraqi origin, identified by Iraq’s prime minister as Ahmed al-Taei, who was snatched last Monday on a visit to relatives.
A bomb targeting poor day labourers in Sadr City on Monday killed 28 people on a day when more than 70 Iraqis were killed in violence across the country. A car bomb not far away killed three people and wounded 10 on Tuesday.
Following strains between Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led national unity coalition and U.S. officials over timetables for steps to bring peace, Bush sent National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley to Iraq this week.
Bush promised Maliki more support to build effective Iraqi armed forces, which Maliki has complained lack weaponry to fight Sunni insurgents. Some Sunni leaders complain, however, that some police and army units are little more than sectarian Shi’ite and Kurdish militias in uniform.
Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said on Monday the government would ask the United Nations to renew the annual mandate of the U.S.-led Multi-National Force when it expires at the end of the year. Maliki had indicated on taking office six months ago that he hoped for a new arrangement.
“The presence of the Multi-National Force is indispensable for the security and stability of Iraq,” Zebari told Reuters.
Saudi Arabia’s envoy in Washington warned against an abrupt withdrawal: “Since America came into Iraq uninvited, it should not leave Iraq uninvited,” Turki al-Faisal said. He also predicted of “ethnic cleansing on a massive scale” if Bush accepted suggestions to divide Iraq as a way of trying to end violence that is killing hundreds a week and has caused many tens of thousands of Iraqis to flee their homes.