US troops surge into Iraq as death toll mounts

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The first troops in President George Bush's "surge" arrived in Baghdad yesterday to the news that America had suffered its deadliest day in Iraq for nearly two years.

As 3,000 of the expected 20,000-plus new troops deployed in Baghdad, the Pentagon announced that four soldiers and a marine had been killed on Saturday in Anbar province raising that day's toll among American forces to at least 24.

The number of British troops killed also inched up as the Army announced that a soldier was killed and four wounded yesterday by a roadside bomb in Basra.

The heavy US toll overshadowed the return of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to the political fold. Followers of the radical cleric have ended a damaging two-month boycott of the Iraqi parliament after reaching a deal with the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

The Sadrists control a bloc of 32 MPs in the 275-seat assembly and have six members in the Shia-majority cabinet. The deal yesterday signals a thaw in relations among factions within the government.

The Bush administration's decision to ignore Congressional pressure and deep public opposition and deploy more troops in the Iraqi capital has been widely seen as a preliminary to a military confrontation with Mr Sadr's powerful militia, the Mehdi Army. The militia, which controls the Shia neighbourhood of Sadr City, is blamed for running death squads that have fuelled the sectarian slaughter in the divided capital.

Washington has long identified the young cleric as one of the main destabilising forces in the country and has fought sporadic battles with the Mehdi Army for the past three years. In recent weeks, US and Iraqi government forces have launched a series of bloody raids aimed at Mr Sadr's militia leaders, creating deep rifts within the Shia-majority government.

Mr Maliki, has been under pressure to crack down on the Mehdi Army, but his past dependence on Mr Sadr's political support has made that difficult. The Sadrists announced a boycott late last year to press their demand for a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and to protest against a meeting between Mr Maliki and Mr Bush.

"We are ending our boycott of the ministries and the parliament," Bahaa al-Araji, a Sadrist parliamentarian, said, adding that there had been a response to their demands.

Iraqi officials, meanwhile, said the gunmen who attacked the provincial headquarters in the Shia holy city of Karbala, killing five other US troops on Saturday, were wearing military uniforms and drove up in black sports utility vehicles - commonly used by foreign dignitaries - in an attempt to impersonate Americans.

Another two US soldiers were killed by roadside bombs, one in the capital the other in Nineveh province north of Baghdad. The deaths of the 12 troops in combat, combined with a helicopter crash that killed another dozen, made Saturday the deadliest day for US forces in two years and the third worst since the war began in March 2003. It was eclipsed only by the 37 US deaths on 26 January 2005, and the 28 on the third day of the invasion.

The military gave little information on the crash of the Black Hawk helicopter during good weather in Diyala province, north-east of Baghdad. US and Iraqi forces have been battling Sunni insurgents and Shia militias there, around the city of Baquba.

The five British soldiers attacked by the roadside bomb in Basra were on patrol in a Warrior armoured vehicle, the Ministry of Defence said. "The patrol was carrying out routine duties when a suspected roadside bomb detonated." The death brings to 130 the number of British military personnel killed in Iraq since the invasion.

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