Seven US soldiers die as Iraqi state of emergency widens

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More violence shook Iraq yesterday as the interim government moved to renew extraordinary emergency powers it had granted itself ahead of the elections at the end of the month.

More violence shook Iraq yesterday as the interim government moved to renew extraordinary emergency powers it had granted itself ahead of the elections at the end of the month.

Seven US soldiers were killed when their vehicle hit an explosive device during a routine patrol on a road in northwestern Baghdad. In Mosul, Iraqi officials announced the discovery of the bodies of 18 young Shia men believed shot and killed execution-style near the city last month.

Back in the capital, gunmen shot dead Abdel Karim, the head of police in Baghdad's Shia district of Sadr City, as he was driving to work, and officials found the body of high-level Communist Party official Hadi Saleh, 56, in his home. In the country's restless province of Anbar, one US Marine was killed, military officials announced. Marines in Fallujah continued military operations in what was once the insurgents' stronghold, seizing weapons and detaining 13 suspected militants in raids.

The torrent of violence prompted Iyad Allawi, the interim Prime Minister, to extend a state of emergency, which calls for a curfew and gives police greater powers, for another month. "As the gangs of terrorists continue their hostile activities to prevent the formation of a government and stop the peaceful participation of Iraqis in the political process, the Council of Ministers has agreed to extend emergency laws," Mr Allawi said in a statement.

The US military has also stepped up patrols and raised its profile for the run-up to the elections, which insurgents are attempting to disrupt with a campaign of car bombs and assassinations. During a press briefing yesterday, Lieutenant-General Thomas Metz, commander of all forces in Iraq, said the insurgents had diverse backgrounds."There are hardcore terrorists fighting for an ideology; there are young impoverished men looking to make some money," he said. "It would change by province, it changes by time of year, it changes by the illumination of the moon, it changes by the weather."

He insisted the insurgency had no popular support. "The tools [the insurgents] are using ­ murder, torture, kidnapping, indiscriminately, children, women ­ those are tools of someone who is not popularly wanted," he said. "Other than wanting the coalition to go away very few of these groups have a common objective."

His comments were made hours before the US military confirmed the death of seven of its soldiers. The explosive device killed all seven soldiers travelling in the Bradley Fighting Vehicle during its routine patrol.

In relation to the grim discovery in Mosul, the 18 victims, some as young as 14, were killed last month as they were on their way from the Shia Baghdad district of Kadhemiya to work at a US military base in Mosul. Each victim was found with their hands tied and shot in the head. The violence has raised fears that insurgents ­ almost all from the Sunni Arab minority ­ are making a concerted effort to drag the country into civil war. Iraq's Communist Party recruits mostly from the country's Shia majority.

Mr Saleh, a labour rights advocate, was handcuffed, beaten and then strangled with a steel wire. Iraqi communists have for decades been brutally targeted by Saddam Hussein's Baath party.

As the violence and death toll escalated, a string of Arab neighbours of Iraq convened in Jordan yesterday amid fears of the consequences of a Shiite electoral victory. Tensions between Iraq and Iran were evident during the ministerial meeting designed to consolidate support for Iraqi elections and urge Iraqis to defy boycott calls.

The group urged Sunni Iraqis to vote in the pending elections in a bid to prevent a clean sweep of power by Shiites with close ties to Iran.

Sunni Arab neighbours of Iraq fear that a Shiite regime in Iraq would encourage their own Shiite communities to forge stronger ties with Iran.

During the meeting, the foreign ministers from Iraq's neighbours agreed to "respect" the "principles of non-interference in [Iraq's] internal affairs" and said they "stood strongly behind the interim government". They also condemned all terrorist attacks in Iraq.

Diplomats and Jordanian officials later claimed that the reference to "outside interference" related specifically to Iran, as well as Syria to a lesser extent.