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3 U.S. soldiers slain in Iraq

The deaths push the American toll near to 4,000. Near Samarra, Iraqis say six Sunni volunteers are killed.

March 23, 2008|Ned Parker and Hameed Rasheed | Special to The Times

BAGHDAD — The number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq edged closer Saturday to the milestone figure of 4,000 as a roadside bomb claimed the lives of three soldiers.

The bomb blew up the U.S. soldiers' vehicle and killed two Iraqis in northwest Baghdad, the military said in a news release. The military also reported that indirect fire, either a rocket or mortar shell, killed a U.S. soldier and injured four others Friday south of Baghdad.

The loss of life raised the number of U.S. troops who have died in Iraq since 2003 to 3,996, according to the website icasualties.org.

The bloodshed came three days after President Bush marked the anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion by declaring that the United States must win in Iraq. So far, 23 U.S. service members have died this month, making it one of the quieter periods for U.S. casualties since the war began.

North of Baghdad, a U.S. military helicopter opened fire Saturday near Samarra, killing six Iraqis who were believed to have worked for the so-called Sons of Iraq, the American-funded neighborhood security groups that include many former Sunni insurgents.

An Iraqi army commander and one of the paramilitary group's leaders said the men were stationed at a checkpoint when they came under fire.

The U.S. military asserted that the men appeared to be engaged in suspicious activity at the site, where militants have previously planted roadside bombs. In a statement, the U.S. Army said that it was not clear whether the men belonged to the U.S.-backed citizens' units.

The Sons of Iraq movement, formerly called the Awakening Councils, began in western Anbar province with Sunni tribes rebelling against Al Qaeda in Iraq. It has led to a major shift as many former Sunni insurgents have decided to join forces with the U.S. military nationwide in battling radicals.

Maj. Majeed Abbas, one of the leaders of the Sunni fighters in Samarra, said he had alerted the Americans that his men were policing checkpoints in the region around Tharthar Lake, which is a popular route for insurgents moving between Anbar and Salahuddin province to the northeast.

"I contacted the [American] man in charge of the helicopters. . . . I told him to stop the helicopters and that these were our forces and that they were on duty," Abbas said. He said that U.S. officers later asked him to pick up the bodies.

The Iraqi army commander in the area, Lt. Col. Dhia Mahmoud Ahmed, said he had told the Americans that the Iraqi military had been aware of the checkpoint, but the U.S. officers said they had not been alerted to its presence.

"God have mercy on the martyrs' souls," Ahmed said.

There has been a string of controversial "friendly fire" incidents in which U.S. forces have called in airstrikes mistakenly on their new Sunni allies. There are more than 80,000 Sons of Iraq members across the country. The groups have chafed at the Iraqi government's slowness in hiring them for police forces and the army.

In other violence, two people were killed in roadside bombings in Baghdad and the northern city of Kirkuk.

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ned.parker@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Parker reported from Baghdad and special correspondent Rasheed from Samarra. Times staff writers Said Rifai, Raheem Salman and Saif Rasheed contributed to this report.

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