US death toll hits 50 in the 90 days since war 'ended'

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American casualties in Iraq since President George Bush declared the war over reached the critical figure of 50 yesterday. Fifty young American lives have thus been sacrificed since 1 May in a growing guerrilla war that Washington and London still will not acknowledge.

In the latest incident, a US soldier was killed in an attack in the centre of Baghdad when a grenade was dropped on his convoy from a bridge.

Under ever increasing assault by hundreds of Iraqi guerrillas, America's military crusade in the Middle East ­ to eliminate non-existent weapons of mass destruction and "liberate" Iraq ­ is already crumbling. Yet still the United States has failed to identify its real attackers. For its dangerous military enemies are not the so-called "remnants" and "dead-enders" of Saddam Hussein's regime, as Washington and the American occupation forces apparently believe, but a fast-growing series of Sunni Muslim Islamist groups who have no love for Saddam but a ferocious desire to rid their country of foreign occupation.

This critical mistake by the US has led it to squander thousands of soldiers in military operations against vestiges of the former Baathist regime that now have little or no influence over events. The perpetual hunt for Saddam will not have the slightest effect on the Salafist organisations, sometimes only 10 to 15 strong, which are now ambushing American troops across half of Iraq.

One of them made an appearance on a tape aired by the al-Arabiya television channel yesterday. The Salafist Jihad Group, which has no known connection to Saddam's regime, issued a warning to the Americans that it would "shake the ground under your feet" and bring God's vengeance upon the occupation army. Couched in the usual childish language of such threats ­ including reference to the "Black House" in Washington ­ it was none the less a genuine reflection of the naive but increasingly ruthless emir-led Islamist groups that have been blossoming.

Originally presenting themselves non-violently as "The Faith Campaign" even under Saddam's rule, they are now operating with increasing efficiency as an embryonic guerrilla army. Shia Muslims, too, are now demanding that their leadership call for a holy war against the Americans.

For the moment, however, it is the Sunni groups ­ totally unconnected with Osama bin Laden but equally committed to a mosque-based orthodoxy which regards the absence of foreign occupiers as the first step towards purity ­ who are making the running. They have their roots in the old Ikhwan Muslimeen ­ the Muslim brotherhood ­ which was persecuted and eventually liquidated by Saddam, who would not tolerate Islamism of any but the tamest kind under his rule.

In an attempt to wean Iraqi youth away from the more extreme versions of Islam, Saddam created an organisation of non-political Islamic activists who were allowed to encourage a ritualistic but non-political interest in the Muslim religion.

These are the groups which are now causing such alarm in Washington and fear among US troops in Iraq and their families at home. They are growing in size as US retaliation increases, and there are many other such Sunni groups.

Across the country now, US convoys travel with every soldier pointing a gun from the window of his truck or Humvee, fingers quite literally on the trigger. Their opponents, many of them, spent years on the run from Saddam's torturers and killers and, if they remain unorganised now, occupation is likely to unite them. Which means, unfortunately for the Americans and their British allies, that the insurrection has already begun.