A roadside bomb killed seven U.S. soldiers in northwest Baghdad and two Marines were killed in western Iraq on Thursday, the deadliest day for American forces since a suicide attack on a U.S. base last month.
The bombing came as Iraq extended a state of emergency by 30 days to battle militants whose attacks have surged ahead of this month's elections. The prime minister warned the number of assaults would only rise as voting day draws closer.
Just three weeks before the Jan. 30 elections, the commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq acknowledged that security is poor in four of 18 Iraqi provinces. But Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz said at a briefing in the capital that delaying the vote would only increase the danger.
"I can't guarantee that every person in Iraq that wants to vote, goes to a polling booth and can do that safely," Metz said. "We're going to do everything possible to create that condition for them, but we are fighting an enemy who cares less who he kills, when he kills and how he kills. A delay in the elections just gives the thugs and terrorists more time to continue their intimidation, their cruelty, their brutal murders of innocent people."
The soldiers with Task Force Baghdad were on patrol Thursday evening when their Bradley fighting vehicle hit the explosive, the military said in a statement. Everyone inside the Bradley was killed.
No other details were immediately available about the latest attack. But Iraq's insurgents have frequently targeted American troops with crude explosives planted in roads and detonated remotely as patrols pass.
The two other U.S. Marines killed in action Thursday were both members of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and died in Anbar province, which is home to the volatile city of Fallujah.
The previous four days had seen a string of assassinations, suicide car bombings and other assaults that killed 90 people.
Thursday's toll was the highest for the U.S. military in Iraq since a suicide bombing at a mess tent in Mosul on Dec. 21 killed 22 people, including 14 U.S. soldiers and three American contractors.
The latest deaths brought the number of U.S. troops killed since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003 to 1,350, according to an Associated Press count. At least 1,063 died as a result of hostile action.
The military said the names of the troops who died Thursday were being withheld until their families are notified.
As militants continued with the attacks, Iraqi authorities made some grisly discoveries. Police in the southern city of Basra found two charred and beheaded bodies in a house used by election officials. Police also announced they found the bodies of 18 young Shiites killed last month while seeking work at a U.S. base.
The state of emergency, originally announced two months ago, was extended for 30 days throughout the country except for the northern Kurdish-run areas, a government statement said. The decree includes a nighttime curfew and gives the government additional power to make arrests and launch military or police operations.
Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said he expected the number of attacks would rise before the Jan. 30 vote and called the decision on prolonging the state of emergency a precaution. He blamed former members of Saddam Hussein's regime for the continuing violence.
Allawi, a secular Shiite, is insisting the elections go forward, despite calls from some Sunni religious leaders for a boycott. Sunni Arab political parties have largely withdrawn from the race because of security fears, particularly in western Iraq. Some have sought a delay of the vote.
The United States strongly opposes a postponement. Metz acknowledged U.S. forces "continue to deal with violence and lawlessness in some areas," specifically citing Nineveh, Anbar, Salahadin and Baghdad provinces. But he said other areas were secure enough to allow the elections to go ahead.
Foreign ministers of neighboring countries issued a statement Thursday saying they "stood strongly behind the interim government of Iraq" and "urged all segments" of society to participate in the elections.
The election is expected to shift power to the Shiite Muslim community, an estimated 60 percent of the population that had been dominated by the Sunni Arab minority since Iraq was created after World War I.
The call was backed by Jordan, a Sunni-dominated neighbor that had previously supported postponing the election. King Abdullah II had also suggested the elections would produce an Iraq controlled by Shiites who would quickly align themselves with Iran, ruled by a Shiite theocracy.
But Jordanian Foreign Minister Hani al-Mulqi insisted the elections be held as scheduled.
"From this podium, I call on all factions of the Iraqi people, young and old, men and women, to go to the polls to choose their representatives and draw their own future," Mulqi said. Failing to do that "will leave the door open for others to choose for them."
The charred bodies of the two beheaded Iraqi policemen were found in a house in Basra used by officials organizing the election, police said.
In the deaths of the 18 Iraqis seeking work with the Americans, police said the insurgents shot the young men _ ranging in age from 14 to 20 _ on Dec. 8 after stopping two minibuses about 30 miles west of the volatile city of Mosul, 225 miles north of Baghdad.
Their hands were tied behind their backs and each was shot in the head, police said. All were Shiites from Baghdad who had been hired by an Iraqi contractor to work at a U.S. base in Mosul.
The bodies were discovered Wednesday, the day a suicide attacker blew up an explosives-laden car outside a police academy south of Baghdad, killing 20 people. A second car bomber killed five Iraqi policemen in Baqubah. Both attacks were claimed by al-Qaida in Iraq, the group led by Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Iraqi forces announced the arrest of Abdul Aziz Sa-dun Ahmed Hamduni, a leader of Zarqawi's group in Mosul.
Reserve, Army policies
WASHINGTON _ Stretched thin by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army is considering a National Guard and Reserve policy shift that could result in part-timers being called to active duty multiple times for up to two years each time, the Associated Press reports, quoting an unnamed senior Army official.
The official, who discussed the matter with a small group of reporters Thursday on condition of anonymity because the matter has not been fully settled inside the Pentagon, said the Army probably will ask Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in the next several months to change the policy.
The official also said it appeared likely that the Army will ask Congress to permanently increase the statutory size of the Army by 30,000 soldiers, to 512,000. He said that decision would be made next year.
In hearings . . .
TIGRIS DROWNING: Investigators thought soldiers were involved in a coverup and never followed leads suggesting an Iraqi teenager survived after being forced into the Tigris River by U.S. soldiers, an Army investigator testified at Fort Hood, Texas, on Thursday. Sgt. Irene Cintron said soldiers who ordered two young Iraqi men into the water at first denied the event took place _ then said it happened but that nobody died. Because of earlier efforts to cover up, subsequent tips were deemed unreliable, she said.
"I believed the whole chain of command was lying to me," Cintron testified during the military trial of Army Sgt. 1st Class Tracy Perkins, who is accused in the drowning death of Zaidoun Fadel Hassoun, 19. Perkins is being tried on charges of involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, obstruction of justice and lying to investigators. He faces a sentence ranging from no prison time to 26 years if convicted.
BEATING DEATH: Navy SEALs accused of beating a terror suspect in Iraq handed him over to CIA officials who were in the process of interrogating him in Abu Ghraib prison when he died, according to testimony Thursday in military court in San Diego.
The testimony came during an Article 32 hearing, the military equivalent of a civilian grand jury, for an unidentified Navy SEAL lieutenant charged with assault and maltreatment of Iraqi prisoners. The hearing will determine if the officer faces a court-martial.