Grim milestone for US troops in Iraq as Bush envoy attempts to heal rift

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The Independent Online

George Bush's National Security Adviser arrived in Baghdad yesterday in an attempt to patch up relations between the US and Iraqi governments, as the Pentagon announced the death of the 101st American soldier this month and scores of people were killed in attacks across the country.

In the worst incident, up to 33 people were killed in a dawn explosion in Sadr City, a poor Shia area in eastern Baghdad, most of them day labourers waiting for work. Every sign was that the bombing was carried out by Sunni elements, seeking to provoke Shia retaliation that would send the country even closer to civil war. There were other killings in Basra and Kirkuk.

Gunmen also shot dead the Sunni academic Essam al-Rawi, head of the University Professors' Union, as he was leaving home in the capital. More than 150 university professors have been killed in Iraq since the war began, while hundreds more may have fled.

The unannounced visit by Stephen Hadley, the National Security Adviser, followed a new initiative to set up a joint US-Iraqi commission to co-ordinate relations between Washington and the five-month old government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

In pointed remarks last week, Mr Maliki said that while he was America's friend, he was "not America's man". On Saturday President Bush held a 50-minute video conference with Mr Maliki, and US officials said afterwards that all was now well.

It was strenuously denied in Washington yesterday that the Hadley trip was a fence-mending exercise, but tensions clearly linger. The Americans are unhappy at the Iraqi government's apparent reluctance to take on the militias and Mr Maliki was infuriated when Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador in Baghdad, publicly pinned him last week to an "agreed" series of "benchmarks" for action. Iraqi officials believe that the "timetable" was announced to try to convince the US public that the Bush administration had a grip on the crisis barely a week before mid-term elections in which the Republicans may take a severe beating. Whatever the truth, one thing is certain: Iraq is the issue uppermost in the country's minds ahead of the poll. Some commentators are talking about a "tipping point" in public opinion against the war, as the sectarian violence seems only to intensify, with US forces caught in the middle. A Fox News poll at the weekend found that 26 per cent of likely voters said that Iraq was the most important factor, more than twice as many who mentioned the economy or terror.

The grim mood has not been helped by a new milestone for US casualties. The marine killed in Anbar province west of Baghdad on Sunday became the 101st American soldier to die this month. October is now the deadliest month since January 2005, and the fourth deadliest overall. At least 2,810 US troops have been killed since the invasion in March 2003. Meanwhile, Britain said it was evacuating some non-essential staff from its consulate in Basra after a series of mortar and rocket attacks in recent days on the compound containing the consulate building.

The staff are be relocated at the airport in what is described as a "temporary" move. The Foreign Office stressed Britain "will stay in Iraq until the job is done".

In a separate sign of the violence that is now plaguing what had been a comparatively safe city, a roadside bomb yesterday killed three people travelling in a private security company convoy near Basra.