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US toll in Iraq rises to 96 this month

Five troops killed during fighting in Anbar Province

BAGHDAD -- Five American troops were killed during fighting in Anbar Province, the US military said yesterday, bringing to at least 96 the number slain this month -- the bloodiest since October 2005. Meanwhile, US troops in the capital continued searching for a comrade believed kidnapped this week.

Elsewhere, bands of gunmen attacked Iraqi security forces north of the capital in Baqubah and outlying villages yesterday in what appeared to be a coordinated strike against police positions. At least 28 police officers were killed and 10 wounded in a series of attacks and ambushes. As many as 50 officers are still missing, according to local authorities.

And in Najaf, authorities closed the most sacred Shi'ite Muslim shrine in the country after a tip about explosives allegedly smuggled into ancient parts of the southern city. Shopkeepers were asked to close early and leave, and cars were banned anywhere near the Imam Ali shrine, police said.

Of the American troops, one sailor assigned to Third Naval Construction Regiment, two Marines assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5 and two Marines assigned to Regimental Combat Team 7 died Wednesday, the US military said in a statement. More than a third of the US deaths this month have occurred in Anbar, a poor and predominantly Sunni Arab province stretching from outside Baghdad to the western border with Jordan.

The single most deadly month for US troops in the war was November 2004 when US forces conducted offensives in Fallujah. That month, 137 US troops died, 126 of them in combat, according to icasualties.org, a website that tracks coalition casualties.

In October 2005, 96 US military personnel were killed.

Violence in Iraq usually spikes during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting that just ended. At least 300 Iraqi soldiers were killed this year during the holy month, according to US officials.

General William B. Caldwell IV, the US military spokesman in Baghdad, said yesterday that fewer killings occurred in the capital during the past few days but offered no data to support his statement. The bodies of seven Iraqi men were found yesterday in various areas of the capital. All had been handcuffed and shot in the head.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the United States would increase its support for Iraqi security forces.

Rumsfeld also said people ought to "just back off" and stop demanding specific benchmarks or timelines for progress in Iraq, saying it is difficult to predict when the Iraqis can take control of security.

This week, American troops have flooded certain parts of Baghdad searching for the missing US soldier, an Iraqi-American working as a translator for a reconstruction team. During a rare raid into Sadr City on Wednesday, troops received intelligence that the soldier was being held at a nearby mosque that they then searched. He wasn't there.

The soldier, who has not been named, was allegedly kidnapped while visiting a relative in Baghdad's Karada neighborhood during Eid al-Fitr celebrations that mark the end of Ramadan, according to the military. He was last seen Monday afternoon inside Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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