Tuesday, May 06, 2008

US withdraws 3,500 troops amid surge in Iraq violence

BAGHDAD (AFP)- A fresh US troop withdrawal from Iraq was underway on Tuesday amid diplomatic and political moves to stem violence fuelled by alleged Iranian groups and to reduce deadly street battles.

And another American soldier was killed, raising to 4,072 the number of US troops killed since the March 2003 invasion.

The military announced it was taking back troopers deployed as part of a controversial "surge" 14 months ago. They will complete a return to their base at Fort Benning, Georgia over the next several weeks.

One third of the 3,500 troops have already left and the others are on their way, spokesman Major Winfield Danielson told AFP.

The pullout is in line with US President George W. Bush's plan announced in September to complete the withdrawal of the 30,000 extra troops he poured in last year to curb an increase in sectarian violence in Iraq.

Washington wants to complete the withdrawal of the 30,000 troops by July and have a 45-day evaluation period before considering overall force levels.

At least 167 US troops have been killed this year out of the 4,072 who have died since the March 2003 US-led invasion, according to an AFP count based on the independent icasualties.org website.

The US and its allies have 168,000 troops currently deployed in Iraq.

On the political front, an Iraqi lawmaker whose party is loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, resigned on Tuesday protesting the violence in Baghdad's Sadr City where street battles claim a daily death toll.

"I announce the suspension of my membership in protest at what is happenning in Sadr city," Hassan Al-Rubaie said. "The religious and political leaderships in Iraq are responsible for the violations that happen in Sadr City."

He acted even as President Jalal Talabani made a fresh appeal to the militia to lay down its arms and allow essential supplies to get into the Sadr City, parliamentary officials said.

US troops are using tanks and aircraft to attack suspected militia positions in the impoverished district of Sadr City, home to some two million people. Hundreds have been killed since the fighting broke out in late March.

News of the latest US withdrawal came as Iraq moved to mend fences with its former enemy Iran, even as Washington accused Tehran-linked groups of providing support for Shiite militia fighting Americans in Baghdad.

On Tuesday, Iraqi officials said at least another four people were killed and 12 wounded in overnight clashes in Sadr City.

US commanders charge that the militiamen they are fighting in Sadr City are using rockets and bombs supplied by Iranian groups.

The accusations have threatened to derail a planned fourth round of talks between representatives of Washington, Tehran and Baghdad on the situation in Iraq.

On Sunday, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Baghdad was forming a panel to search for the evidence to "document any Iranian intervention in Iraqi affairs."

Meanwhile, another three people were killed and 10 wounded when mortar bombs slammed into a municipality building in central Baghdad, Iraqi security officials said.

In Diyala province, north of the capital, a pro-US tribal chief and three members of his family were kidnapped by suspected Al-Qaeda gunmen. The abductions came after 10 Iraqi soldiers were killed on Monday in the same region, one of the most violent in Iraq.

A car bomb attack killed two people and wounded 28 in Tikrit, the hometown of the late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, local officials said.

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