America suffers bloodiest day as Bush calls on Iraqis to defy the insurgents

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The Independent Online

Just four days before Iraq's historic elections, 36 US soldiers were killed yesterday in the deadliest single day for American forces since they invaded Iraq almost two years ago.

Just four days before Iraq's historic elections, 36 US soldiers were killed yesterday in the deadliest single day for American forces since they invaded Iraq almost two years ago.

The heaviest loss was a transport helicopter crash in the western desert that killed all 31 Marines on board. The CH-53 Sea Stallion went down at 1.20am near Rutbah, a desolate town 220 miles from Baghdad. Officials in Washington said that bad weather was the most likely cause.

Four more US Marines were killed in ground fighting in Anbar province, which includes Ramadi and Fallujah, west of Baghdad, and a soldier was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade north of the capital. The losses bring the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq since the start of the war to more than 1,400, with more than 10,000 wounded.

At a press conference in Washington, President George Bush acknowledged that the news would be "very discouraging" to the American people. "We value life," he said, "and we weep and mourn when soldiers lose their life". But he ignored growing calls in Congress for the administration to at least set a timetable for withdrawal of most US troops, insisting American forces would remain in sufficient numbers to ensure "the job is done", and the Iraqis were able to defend themselves.

Despite the bloody cost of the war, the President stressed "the long-term objective, and that is to spread freedom". Sunday's elections, he predicted, would be "a grand day in the history of Iraq", though he declined to specify what would be a satisfactory turnout. An hour later, the Senate confirmed Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State by a margin of 85 to 13, overriding fierce criticism from some Democrats that she had misled the country over the reasons for going to war.

Ms Rice did draw more opposition than any secretary of state in recent history, more than the seven votes cast against Henry Kissinger in 1973, and the six objecting to Alexander Haig in 1981. Her predecessor Colin Powell was confirmed unanimously.

The latest surge in casualties may divert public attention in the US from the election. The US has lost 33 helicopters in Iraq, of which 20 were shot down. In the worst incident before yesterday, two helicopters carrying soldiers collided over Mosul in northern Iraq in November 2003, while trying to avoid ground fire. Seventeen men were killed and five wounded. A Chinook helicopter was shot down by a shoulder-launched heat-seeking missile fired from a date grove near Fallujah the same month, killing 16 soldiers.

Helicopters now fly low and fast to give insurgents firing at them less time to aim. The roar as they fly just above roof-top level in Baghdad often sets off a cacophony of car alarms. Though flying low may make them less vulnerable, it also makes reconnaissance and surveillance by helicopter more difficult.

Yesterday, two suicide car-bombs were detonated on the airport road, the most lethal highway in Iraq, which is heavily patrolled by US armoured vehicles. Seven soldiers were wounded. Last November the British embassy told its staff not to use this road.

Although the interim Iraqi government claims 14 out of 18 provinces are safe, Iraqi truck drivers say the only safe provinces are the three Kurdish ones in the north. The guerrillas appear to have an inexhaustible supply of young men willing to be suicide bombers.

In the Sunni Arab town of Riyadh south-west of the oil city of Kirkuk, three suicide cars filled with explosives blew up close to an Iraqi army post and a police station yesterday. Four Iraqi policemen, two Iraqi soldiers and three civilians were killed, and 12 wounded. An approaching US combat team came under fire and two soldiers were wounded.

The insurgents, many different and loosely co-ordinated groups but all opposed to the election, reject the vote as illegitimate because it is in effect being held under the auspices of the US as the occupying power.

In the latest attempt to disrupt polling, a suicide bomber detonated a fuel tanker at an office of a major Kurdish political party yesterday, in Sinjar, a town a few miles south-west of Mosul, killing 15 people and injuring 30, officials of the Kurdistan Democratic Party said. The insurgent group led by al-Qa'ida's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, claimed responsibility for the attack.

The KDP is one of the two largest Kurdish political organisations in Iraq, and part of a coalition of 11 Kurdish groups for the elections. A video is circulating of a hooded fighter with a pistol who says: "We are mujahedin in the province of Nineveh [Mosul]. What they call elections have no basis in the Islamic religion and that's why we will hit all the election centres."

The US military keeps reporting they are fighting a group called AIF, for Anti-Iraqi Forces. US intelligence says 95 per cent of the insurgents are Iraqis.