Four more US soldiers killed in Iraq's guerilla war

They were soldiers, but they were soft targets. Three US troops from the 4th Infantry Division, guarding a children's hospital in Baquba, north of Baghdad, were killed yesterday by grenades. Four others were wounded.

Hours later, one soldier was killed and two were wounded when their convoy was attacked near Abu Ghuraib. The soldiers were with an engineer unit attached to the 3rd Infantry Division. Thus, the inevitable death toll, so familiar from the start of the Vietnam War, rose by another four digits.

The macabre scorecard: 162 American soldiers killed since the start of the war that was fought to seize the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction which don't exist ­ 14 more than the total US dead of the 1991 Gulf War. Fully 48 of them have died since the formal end to combat on 1 May.

The nails in their coffins will be literal and figurative. Real in the boxes to be lowered into American graveyards in a few days' time, and symbolic in President George Bush's chances of re-election.

Was it another case of revenge? Only hours after the Americans had killed Uday and Qusay Hussein, the sons of Saddam, Qusay's 14-year-old son and another Saddam retainer in Mosul, three soldiers of the same 4th Infantry Division were blown up by a mine near the city.

The latest deaths follow another operation by the same unit: the detention of 13 men, some of whom the Americans claimed were Saddam's personal bodyguards. As usual, the Americans said that their "net was closing" on Saddam.

Perhaps it is. But the increasingly boastful claims of the occupation army may be generating the very violence that the killing of Uday and Qusay was supposed to prevent. The guerrilla resistance to the US occupation is clearly growing stronger. Who, after all, would have believed, when Baghdad was "liberated" on 9 April, that US soldiers would now be dying at the rate of almost three a day? Nine have died since Uday and Qusay were killed on Tuesday.

Attacks on the Americans ­ although the occupation authorities do not say this ­ are now running at about 12 a day. Kidnappings and armed car robberies are also increasing. In an attack on five suspected hijackers, the commander of Baghdad's national police academy ­ appointed by the Americans ­ was injured in the city's al-Shuala suburb. Brigadier Ahmed Khadim was shot in the leg.

Graffiti urging Iraqis to attack Americans have also increased over the past week. Most of the slogans demanding an end to occupation are in the name of tribal groups rather than Saddam loyalists. Previously they were erased within hours, but the threats now appear so fast there is little time to erase them before new ones turn up, especially in Shia Muslim areas.

Yesterday's attack in Baquba occurred at 11am when the city ­ an hour and a half's drive from Baghdad ­ was packed with traffic.

Grenade assaults on Americans often occur when thousands of civilians are in the area, in the hope that the US response will be hindered by the fear of killing innocents. The logic of the whole business is fearfully simple: if Americans guarding hospitals need further protection, more US troops will in turn have to be employed to guard the guards.

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