- The Washington Times - Friday, December 22, 2006

BAGHDAD — Insurgent attacks killed five more American troops west of the Iraqi capital, the military said yesterday, making December the second-deadliest month for U.S. servicemen in 2006.

So far this month, 76 American troops have died in Iraq, the same number that were killed in all of April.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates flew back to Washington yesterday to give President Bush his advice on transforming U.S. policy in Iraq after holding three days of talks in the war zone with military and political leaders.

Mr. Gates was scheduled to see the president at the mountain retreat of Camp David, Md., today.

Before leaving Baghdad, Mr. Gates declined to say whether he plans to recommend a short-term increase in U.S. troop levels, but said he thinks there is “a broad strategic agreement between the Iraqi military and Iraqi government and our military.”

Britain’s Defense Secretary Des Browne acknowledged yesterday he may have to increase the size of Britain’s armed forces as a result of commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan — echoing military expansion plans being considered in Washington.

Mr. Browne told the Times of London he could consider increasing the size of the armed forces from 95,560 because current deployments had left too little time for training exercises.

“People imagine that the best form of training is to be in Iraq or Afghanistan, but it’s not true,” Mr. Browne was quoted as saying by the newspaper. “While we are deploying troops in their thousands, we lose the chance to build up their basic skills.”

Poland, which has 900 soldiers in Iraq, agreed yesterday to extend its mission in Iraq until the end of 2007. The Poles focus mainly on training Iraqi security forces and are based in an area south of Baghdad that is calmer than the capital.

Also yesterday, South Korean lawmakers endorsed a motion to extend the country’s deployment in Iraq for another year, but cut the number of troops in half. The motion calls on the South Korean government to withdraw 1,100 troops of its 2,300-strong contingent in the relatively peaceful, northern city of Irbil by April.

The five U.S. deaths announced yesterday took place over two days. One soldier died and another was wounded yesterday when their patrol came under fire west of Baghdad, the military said. On Thursday, three Marines and one U.S. sailor died from wounds sustained in combat in western Anbar province.

Meanwhile, Shi’ites from parliament’s largest bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, met yesterday in Najaf amid efforts to craft a new coalition that would include Kurds and one Sunni party. They had traveled to the holy city to seek approval for the plan from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a revered Shi’ite cleric who is said to be alarmed at the bloodshed sweeping swathes of the country.

It was not clear whether such a coalition would be able to govern effectively without the backing of radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s 30 loyalists in the 275-member parliament, and his six ministers in the 38-member Cabinet.

The builders of the new coalition are trying to exclude Sheik al-Sadr, whose faction has been an integral part of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government but has been boycotting the parliament and Cabinet to protest Mr. al-Maliki’s recent meeting with Mr. Bush.

Officials close to the militia leader said he has agreed to end the three-week boycott and allow supporters to rejoin the government.

Separately, the purported leader of an al Qaeda-linked militant group offered U.S. troops a one-month truce to withdraw from Iraq without being attacked, according to a speech posted on an Islamic Web site yesterday.

The authenticity of the tape of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, could not be verified.

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