BAGHDAD (AFP) -The battle for Baghdad claimed five more US troops as Iraqis began to mark the end of the Ramadan holiday marred by spiralling unrest and the murder of 17 police trainees.
Overnight, the bang and flash of colourful fireworks mingled with the more familiar crack of automatic weapons and the bright glow of decoy flares from American helicopters flying low over the city skyline.
But while Sunnis began to celebrate the three-day festival of Eid al-Fitr — Iraq’s Shiite majority will follow suit on Tuesday — doctors battled to save the survivors of a brutal ambush Sunday on a convoy of unarmed police recruits.
The death toll from the attack rose to 17 overnight, medics said, with more than 20 wounded after insurgents raked their buses with automatic fire.
“The incident took place while the victims were returning to Baghdad in a bus. They were killed near Khan Bani Saad,” said interior ministry spokesman Brigadier General Abdel Karim Khalaf.
“Afterwards, joint Iraqi and US forces went out and arrested two terrorists and killed three. Through interrogating them we managed to get good information and will act accordingly,” he added.
American casualties were also mounting. The US military confirmed five more soldiers had been killed on Sunday in and around Baghdad in gun and bomb attacks, bringing the number killed this month to 85.
With one week to go, October remains on course to become the bloodiest month for the US military in Iraq since November 2004, when marines were engaged in a fierce battle in the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah.
Since then, the battlefield has become still more complicated for US forces, with the Sunni insurgency joined by its enemies in a fragemented series of Shiite political militias in posing a threat to the US-led coalition.
About 15,000 American troops have been brought into the capital, including battle-hardened infantry from Alaska’s Stryker Brigade, who are now in the 15th month of a planned 12-month tour, but nothing seems to slow the violence.
Already, before Ramadan, United Nations and Iraqi officials were reporting more than 100 deaths per day. When the holy month began, US officials reported a “tremendous spike” in violence and attacks up by more than a fifth.
The constant litany of bad news from Iraq, more than three-and-a-half years after US forces invaded and toppled Saddam Hussein, has led to mounting pressure on US President George W. Bush to change his tactics.
With key congressional elections in two weeks, Bush’s Democratic opponents have been turning up the heat and some of Republican allies have demanded a clearer strategy to either win or bring the 142,000 US troops home.
Bush met with his top Middle East generals and diplomats on Saturday, but has announced no new plan, despite press reports that he will increase pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government to disarm the militias.
The main Shiite militias, radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and the Badr Organisation of Abdel Aziz al-Hakim’s Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), have close ties to Maliki’s ruling coalition.
The Iraqi prime minister is pursuing a strategy of binding the movements into the political process, rather than openly confornting them with his fledgling forces, despite a serious of recent bloody clashes.