Shia accuse US forces of appeasing insurgents as attacks kill 11 soldiers

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US forces have suffered one of the highest daily casualty rates at the hands of the Iraq insurgency, with 11 troops killed.

Meanwhile yesterday, thousands of Shia Muslims marched in protest through Baghdad, accusing the Americans of hindering the war against insurgents in their attempt to appease the Sunni community.

The American deaths, in Baghdad, Fallujah and Ramadi, came during a renewed offensive by insurgents which also saw two devastating suicide bombings that claimed 120 lives.

The main Shia party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), raised the spectre of an outright descent into civil war, warning that the continuing sectarian attacks by Sunnis would force Shia retaliation.

The Americans are blamed for hampering the counter-insurgency - an accusation which began after the US authorities criticised abuse by Shia-controlled government forces and freed dozens of prisoners who had been mistreated in an Interior Ministry bunker.

The Shia demonstrators chanted slogans against the US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Sunni leaders such as Adnan al-Dulaimi and Saleh al-Mutlaq, saying, "No no to Zalmay. No, no to terrorism" and "Yes, yes to the Interior Ministry".

Several Shia clerics used the Friday prayers to call for action. At the Khadimiyah mosque in Baghdad, Imam Hazim Araji, holding a Kalashnikov rifle aloft, said in his address to 5,000 worshippers: "How long can we remain silent? Terrorists are pampered in Iraq."

There was widespread Shia anger elsewhere, with residents in the holy city of Karbala, where 49 people were killed in a suicide attack on Thursday, demanding that religious leaders should authorise the community to fight back.

Shia leaders have met with Iraq's defence and interior ministers as well as the American and British ambassadors. Hadi al-Amiri, a leading Sciri official, said afterwards: "We told the ambassadors that we are with the political process but not at the expense of people's lives. We support human rights but it should not be a green light for terrorists."

The United States President, George Bush, had said that the withdrawal of the 138,000 American troops from Iraq would begin as the Iraqi forces continued to control the resistance. But the upsurge in violence in the past few days, say critics, indicates that this remains a distant possibility.

In a videotape released yesterday, Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, said recent hints by American officials of a troop reduction in Iraq were "a victory for Islam". In the film, Zawahiri, wearing a white turban and grey robe and seated next to an automatic rifle, waved his finger for emphasis as he said: "I congratulate the Islamic nation for the victory of Islam in Iraq." The al-Jazeera broadcaster said the videotape was dated December but gave no specific date. A US military spokesman in Baghdad insisted yesterday that the escalation of attacks actually showed that the democratic process was being embedded.

"Desperate people are dangerous people", said Lt-Col Barry Johnson. "The common people of Iraq are losing their tolerance for the insurgents and terrorists among them, turning in the enemy among them at an increasing rate. We aren't past the dangers that threaten progress and there will be more tragedies ahead of us." At least 2,194 members of the US military have died since the war began. The latest rise in the number of casualties follows a brief hiatus earlier last year.

Some of the deadliest damage was inflicted by a new type of roadside bomb, triggered by infra-red, which can penetrate armoured vehicles used by US and British forces. US and British authorities have, in the past, claimed that the devices were supplied by Iran. But British officials now say that there is no evidence linking the Iranian regime with the supplies.