Bloodiest month for US in Iraq in more than two years

Two more United States soldiers have been killed in Iraq, the military announced on Thursday, confirming that May had become the deadliest month for American forces in two-and-a-half years.

Meanwhile, the hunt was continuing for five Britons who were snatched at gunpoint from a Finance Ministry building in the capital earlier this week, in an abduction that has been blamed on Baghdad’s Shi’ite militias.

US forces detained two suspects in a raid on Sadr City, the eastern Baghdad bastion of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, but it was not clear whether this operation was linked to the missing Britons.

The US soldiers were killed on Wednesday when a roadside bomb hit their foot patrol and brought US casualties for the month to 116, the most since November 2004 when marines fought a fierce battle to retake the city of Fallujah.

Unlike in Fallujah, US forces have fought no major set-piece encounters in May, but instead have been fanning out through Baghdad and a belt of flashpoint towns around the capital in a bid to quell sectarian violence.

”First and foremost, it’s been a tough month,” Brigadier General Perry Wiggins, deputy director of regional operations with the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a Defence Department briefing on Wednesday.

”We’re moving into places where we haven’t been, not necessarily before.”

April was also bloody for the US-led coalition, with 104 deaths.

Taken together, the two past months have been the deadliest since invasion of March 2003.

The news will increase pressure on US President George Bush, who has already seen domestic support for his war strategy fall to an all-time low and is facing calls to set a timetable for troops withdrawals.

May’s casualties coincide with a ”surge” in US reinforcements, which is due to peak next month. Under this plan, US and Iraqi troops are basing themselves in exposed patrol bases in order to control Baghdad street by street.

The result has been a drop off in attacks by sectarian death squads, with every day bringing more arrests of kidnappers and weapons smugglers, but bomb attacks have continued and US troops now face an insurgent backlash.

US commander General David Petraeus hopes that the surge will provide breathing space for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government, allowing him to push through laws to underpin a programme of national reconciliation.

But the capital’s centres of power are still far from safe.

Almost daily, rockets and mortar shells hit the Green Zone — the fortified district protecting the US embassy and Maliki’s administration.

And on Tuesday, a squad of gunmen in police uniforms stormed a Finance Ministry building outside the zone in downtown Baghdad and dragged off five British visitors: a management consultant and his four bodyguards.

The Britons are still missing amid fears they have fallen into the hands of one of the Shi’ite militia groups that have infiltrated Iraq’s police.

Insurgents also struck an important propaganda victory on May 12, when an al-Qaeda gang destroyed a small US patrol manning a temporary observation post near Mahmudiyah south of Baghdad, killing four soldiers and capturing three.

The corpse of one was later found floating in the Euphrates river, with gunshot wounds to the head and torso. Almost three weeks after the attack his two comrades are still missing, despite a massive US manhunt. — Sapa-AFP

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