- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 23, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) — A roadside bomb killed three American soldiers north of Baghdad yesterday, pushing the U.S. death toll in the five-year conflict to nearly 4,000.

Also yesterday, Iraqi authorities reported that a U.S. air strike north of the capital killed six members of a U.S.-backed Sunni group — straining relations with America’s new allies in the fight against al Qaeda.

Two Iraqi civilians also died in the roadside bombing, which occurred as the Americans were patrolling an area northwest of the capital, the U.S. military said.

Two of the soldiers were killed in the blast and the third died of wounds, the military said. The soldiers were assigned to Multinational Division-Baghdad, it said, but gave no further details.

The latest deaths brought the number of U.S. service members and Pentagon civilians who have died since the war began on March 20, 2003, to 3,996, according to an Associated Press count.

U.S. officials have pointed to a number of positive signs, including a 60 percent drop in violence since President Bush ordered 30,000 U.S. reinforcements to Iraq early last year.

Much of the progress has been due to a move by thousands of Sunnis to abandon the insurgency and join pro-U.S. defense groups — known as “awakening councils.”

Yesterday, a U.S. attack helicopter fired on two checkpoints manned by U.S.-allied Sunni fighters near Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, killing six and injuring two, Iraqi police said.

The U.S. military said an AH-64 Apache helicopter fired on the positions after five persons were “spotted conducting suspicious terrorist activity” in an area notorious for roadside bombs.

“Initial reports suggested the attack may have been a Sons of Iraq checkpoint,” the military said, using a term for the armed U.S.-backed groups. “The incident is currently under a joint Iraqi-Coalition Force investigation.”

A local official of the U.S.-backed group said the attack occurred about two hours after American soldiers stopped at the two checkpoints to meet the Sunni fighters.

“They asked us general questions like: ‘Have you gotten your IDs?’ and ‘Do you need anything?’ and then they left,” Sabbar al-Bazi said. “Two hours later, after I had gone home, I heard two explosions, probably caused by two missiles, and machine-gun fire from a helicopter.”

Lt. Col. Dhiya Mahmoud Ahmed, an Iraqi military officer in charge of security in the area, said he told the Americans after the attack that he had been aware of the friendly checkpoints for two days.

Awakening council members usually wear bright yellow vests, apparently to identify themselves to U.S. forces as members of friendly groups.

U.S.-funded awakening councils, which first sprang up in Anbar province west of Baghdad and spread to Baghdad and surrounding areas, are composed of ex-Sunni insurgents who turned against al Qaeda in Iraq and joined forces with the Americans.

But the Shi’ite-dominated leadership in Baghdad has been ambivalent toward the mostly Sunni councils, fearing they could turn against the government as America draws down its forces.

In Baghdad, members of Sunni awakening councils in the west of the capital have complained they have not been paid for months and have threatened to withdraw their support for the government unless they receive their money within days.

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