Friday December 22, 2006 2:31 PM
By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA
Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - Five more American troops have died from combat wounds in western Iraq and Baghdad, the military said Friday, pushing the U.S. death toll since the war began closer to 3,000.
In December, 76 American troops have been killed; at the current rate, the number of U.S. combat deaths this month could meet or exceed the previous monthly record for 2006.
At least 2,964 American troops have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told The Associated Press on Thursday that Iraq was ``worth the investment'' in American lives and dollars and said the U.S. can still win a conflict that has been more difficult than she expected.
``I don't think it's a matter of money,'' Rice said. ``Along the way there have been plenty of markers that show that this is a country that is worth the investment, because once it emerges as a country that is a stabilizing factor you will have a very different kind of Middle East.''
Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrapped up his trip to Iraq, saying he hopes to give a report to President Bush this weekend on what he learned during his three days of meetings with military and political leaders here.
Gates declined to say whether he plans to recommend a short-term increase in U.S. troop levels. But he said he believes the U.S. and Iraqis have ``a broad strategic agreement between the Iraqi military and Iraqi government and our military.''
Bush is considering whether to quickly send thousands of additional U.S. troops to the country to control the violence. There are 140,000 American troops in Iraq.
One U.S. soldier died and another was wounded Friday when their patrol came under fire, the military said in a statement. On Thursday, three Marines and one U.S. sailor died from wounds sustained in combat in western Anbar province, the military said.
On the Iraqi side, officials close to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said the militia leader has agreed to allow supporters to rejoin the Iraqi government after a three-week boycott, even as political rivals pushed to form a coalition without him.
It was unclear whether a new coalition taking shape among Shiites, Kurds and one Sunni party would be able to govern effectively without the backing of al-Sadr's 30 loyalists in the 275-member parliament, and his six ministers in the 38-member Cabinet.
The cleric's followers had boycotted politics to protest the prime minister's recent meeting with Bush, but appear to have decided to go back to parliament to strengthen their bargaining power - backed up by a militia army - and avoid political isolation.
Shiites from parliament's largest bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, met Thursday in the holy city of Najaf to seek approval for a coalition that crosses sectarian lines from the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a revered cleric who holds sway over many Iraqi Shiites and is said to be alarmed at the sectarian bloodshed sweeping swathes of the country.
``The al-Sadr movement will return to the government and parliament,'' said Abdul Karim al-Anizi, a Shiite lawmaker from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa faction, which had relied on al-Sadr for political support.
The walkout by al-Sadr's supporters had prevented the government from passing laws, contributing to a sense of political crisis alongside a deteriorating security situation. The United Iraqi Alliance had 130 seats, including those of al-Sadr until his supporters walked out.
On Friday, a parked car bomb killed two people and wounded four in Samarra, some 60 miles north of Baghdad, police said. A roadside bomb struck a police patrol near the national theater in Baghdad, wounding two policemen.
U.S.-led forces launched multiple raids across Iraq, killing one terrorist and capturing 25 terror suspects, the military said.
The operations targeted foreign fighters and the al-Qaida in Iraq network, the military said. The suspects were believed to be responsible for the movement of foreign fighters, car bombs and direct attacks on Iraqi civilians and coalition forces, it said.
An al-Qaida in Iraq financier was also captured, the statement said.
A militant umbrella group that includes al-Qaida in Iraq claimed responsibility for a suicide bomber who killed 15 people and wounded 15 others in a crowd of police volunteers in eastern Baghdad on Thursday. The claim appeared on an Islamic Web site, and was signed by the ``Islamic state in Iraq,'' a so-called Islamic government that al-Qaida in Iraq and several other Iraqi Sunni Arab insurgent groups declared earlier this year.