- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 2, 2009

BAGHDAD | The U.S. death toll for April rose to 18, the military said Friday, making it the deadliest in seven months for American forces in Iraq. The sharp increase from the previous month came as a series of bombings also pushed Iraqi deaths to their highest level this year.

In the latest violence, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a restaurant on the reservoir of Iraq’s largest dam near the northern city of Mosul. At least five people were killed and 10 wounded, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.

Two U.S. Marines and one sailor were killed Thursday, while conducting combat operations in Anbar province, according to a military statement. Anbar is a former insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad that has been relatively calm since Sunni tribal leaders turned against al Qaeda in Iraq.

The U.S. military said the Americans were providing requested support to Iraqi forces when it occurred.

The deaths raised the total for American troops to at least 18 in April, doubling the nine killed in March, which was the lowest since the war began in March 2003. That made April the deadliest month for U.S. forces since September, when 25 American troops died.

In all, at least 4,281 members of the U.S. military have died in the Iraq war, according to an Associated Press count.

Civilian deaths in Iraq in April were also higher than previous months after a series of high-profile bombings. At least 371 Iraqis were killed — in addition to 80 Iranian pilgrims — in violence in April, compared with 335 Iraqis killed in March, 288 in February and 242 in January, according to an AP tally.

Meanwhile, anti-American Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, not seen in public for nearly two years, resurfaced in Turkey on Friday to meet with the country’s top leaders, Turkey’s Anatolia news agency reported.

Mr. al-Sadr met with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, but no statements were made.

“He is going from Iran to Turkey to meet a delegation from [the Iraqi shrine city of] Najaf and to hold discussions with the Turkish side about the situation in Iraq and its future,” senior al-Sadr aide Haidar al-Turfi earlier told Agence France-Presse.

Mr. al-Turfi is the first senior official from Mr. al-Sadr’s movement to say directly that the cleric has been in Iran. His followers have always said he was in hiding in Iraq, while the U.S. military has long said he was living in Iran.

The spike in attacks in Iraq has raised concerns that insurgents are stepping up their efforts to reignite sectarian bloodshed and questions about the readiness of the Iraqis to take over responsibility for their own security as U.S. troops begin to withdraw.

The Iraqi and the U.S. militaries have faced new hurdles as Iraqi officials grow more assertive about enforcing a security agreement, which regulates the conduct of American troops in the field.

Tensions also rose Friday in northern Iraq after American forces killed two men during a raid in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit.

The provincial governor’s office and tribal leaders said the raid violated the security agreement regulating U.S. forces’ conduct and demanded an apology.

The U.S. military, however, said it was an Iraqi-led joint operation and the two men killed were suspected of planting roadside bombs.

Security was tightened in Tikrit after hundreds of angry mourners — some firing weapons into the air — took to the streets to protest the killings. The demonstrators shouted “Down with America!” and promised revenge.

The action came nearly a week after anger broke out over a deadly U.S. raid in the southern Shi’ite city of Kut. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called that raid a “crime” that violated the security pact.

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