U.S. officials said they arrested a major Al-Qaida player in Mosul.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- June appears likely to become one of the deadliest months for U.S. troops in Iraq as U.S. officials announced Thursday the deaths of five Marines and a sailor in and near the restive city of Ramadi.
The Marines died in a roadside bomb explosion Wednesday; the sailor was killed by small-arms fire that same day.
The deaths brought to 42 the number of fatalities U.S. troops have suffered from hostile fire in the first half of the month, a figure that's already higher than that for all of June 2003 and June 2004, according to Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, a Web site that uses official casualty reports to organize deaths by various criteria.
Hostile fire claimed 31 Americans during the first half of May; 67 died from combat during the entire month -- the fourth deadliest month since U.S. troops entered Iraq in March 2003.
U.S. officials also announced Thursday that they've captured a man they believe is a top lieutenant of terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of Al-Qaida in Iraq.
If true, the detention of Mohammed Khalaf Shakar -- also known as Abu Talha -- could be a significant dent in the al-Zarqawi organization, believed to be behind many of the suicide bombings that have killed thousands of Iraqis.
"Talha has been one of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's most trusted operations agents in Iraq," said Brig. Gen. Donald Alston, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq. "This is a major defeat for the Al-Qaida terrorist organization in Iraq."
Few details were released about Shakar's capture. Alston said he was found Tuesday in a quiet neighborhood in the northern city of Mosul and went quietly, despite boasting in the past that he wore an explosives-laden vest 24 hours a day.
Violence also continued to take Iraqi lives.
A car bomb hit an Iraqi army convoy in western Baghdad, killing at least eight soldiers and wounding at least 16, according to the Iraqi interior ministry. In a town northeast of the capital, a second car bomb hit an Iraqi army convoy, killing at least two soldiers and wounding at least five. And in northern Iraq, yet another Iraqi army convoy was bombed, killing eight Iraqis and wounding eight.
Attempts to be inclusive
Meanwhile, Iraqi officials said a deal was brokered to get the nation's minority Sunni Muslim community -- the backbone of the insurgency -- involved with the drafting of the national constitution. The new compromise would place 15 Sunnis on the 55-member committee, with another 10 serving as advisers. Similar pronouncements have recently fallen through because of sectarian bickering that's plagued the nation's political process.
The ability of the insurgency to pound Iraqi troops seemingly at will underscores the difficulties facing the American presence in Iraq.
Asked when the number of U.S. soldiers and Marines in Iraq could be significantly reduced, Alston said that would depend on the ability of Iraqi troops to take over the counterinsurgency campaign.
"I think that, as the months go on, we are in a better position to calibrate just how long it's going to take us to shift that responsibility to the Iraqi security forces," Alston said. "I don't think we have that clarity right now."
While many Iraqi army platoons have proved themselves in combat, U.S. military officials consider only three battalions -- out of more than 100 -- as being fully operational for combat. In the past week, suicide bombers infiltrated two Iraqi security installations and killed more than 24 Iraqi police and army soldiers.