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4 U.S. TROOPS KILLED IN IRAQ

Attacks may rise ahead of a key report to Congress.

Four more U.S. troops and a British soldier have died in attacks, military officials said Tuesday, in a possible sign that extremists are regrouping after a drop in American deaths last month.

The spate of recent U.S. deaths - 19 so far in August - seems certain to intensify the debate over U.S. progress to calm Iraq and gain ground against militants ahead of a key September report to Congress.

U.S. deaths had dropped slightly in July to 79 - the lowest monthly tally since 70 were killed in November. Before July, more than 100 American forces died each month from April to June as the U.S. military struck out at insurgents on dangerous streets and cities across Iraq.

But U.S. commanders say rogue Shiite militias have stepped into the gap left as Sunni insurgents have been pushed back, and are now responsible for most attacks on Americans in Baghdad and surrounding districts. Such a trend would elevate fears that Iraqi forces are not yet able to maintain security even when insurgents are beaten back. Large numbers of Iraqi police are believed also to hold allegiances to Shiite militia groups.

The spike in deaths comes as the overall number of U.S. troops in Iraq has temporarily peaked at its all-time high - nearly 162,000 - as new units arrive to replace those on the way out, the Pentagon said.

U.S. officials also have warned that militants might try for spectacular attacks before the September report - expected to be a high-level military and diplomatic assessment on U.S. strategies in Iraq and what's needed in the months ahead.

Leery of that, Baghdad officials tightened checkpoints and announced plans for curfews and vehicle bans ahead of a mass Shiite religious march planned in the capital later this week.

Shiite pilgrimages often have been the target of devastating attacks by Sunni insurgents.

FAST FACTS

Iraq developments

United Nations: The top U.N. political adviser, B. Lynn Pascoe, told the Security Council on Tuesday that the United Nations would be prepared to increase the size of its mission in Baghdad by nearly 50 percent, raising the ceiling from 65 to as many as 95 international staffers in the coming months.

Politics: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, on a state visit to neighboring Turkey on Tuesday, dismissed the growing defections from his Cabinet and mounting criticism of his leadership. "This will not affect the government," he said. Deal on rebels: Turkey and Iraq agreed to try to root out a Kurdish rebel group from northern Iraq, but Maliki said he couldn't sign agreement implementing promise until it was put to his Parliament. Turkey has threatened to invade northern Iraq unless Iraq or the U.S. cracks down on the separatist group.

Oil law: Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish government approved a regional oil law Tuesday that paves the way for foreign investment in northern oil and gas fields even as the national oil law is still in limbo.

Times wires

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