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Rising human cost puts pressure on Bush

Abu Ghraib (Iraq), July 16 (Reuters): A grenade attack killed a US soldier in Iraq today, bringing the total combat deaths to 147, equalling the total in the 1991 Gulf War.

The latest death heaped pressure on US President George W. Bush, facing mounting criticism for the cost of the war and accusations the United States exaggerated intelligence on Iraq’s weapons to justify the conflict.

The commander of US ground forces in Iraq Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez and interior ministry adviser Bernard Kerik briefed the newly set up Iraqi Governing Council on the security situation in the country, a council spokesman said.

The US military had expected a surge of attacks this week to coincide with a string of anniversaries linked to Saddam Hussein, the Baath Party and Iraqi nationalism.

Nearly four hours after the first attack, a US military Humvee car was hit by a blast, possibly from a land mine, which wounded two soldiers in Baghdad, witnesses and the military said. Comrades of the soldier who died said he had only been in Iraq for two weeks on his first mission in the country.

“We heard an explosion and we ducked down in our trucks. The soldier who was killed was blown out of his truck. He is lying out there on the highway,” said one soldier, who declined to be identified.

He was in a military convoy of 40 trucks driving along the highway near Abu Ghraib, 25 km west of Baghdad, when there was an explosion. A US military spokesman in Baghdad said the convoy was ambushed with rocket-propelled grenades.

One soldier put his arm around another and comforted him as he cried while sitting on the barrier dividing the road. Three other soldiers were wounded, the US military said.

Witnesses said the Baghdad explosion damaged the vehicle and forced it off the road near a highway leading to the airport. The US military said two soldiers were wounded in what it described as a possible mine attack.

Another US soldier was wounded in an attack overnight in central Baghdad, the military said. The Pentagon said military expenses for the war and its aftermath have cost the US $48 billion to date, with a monthly price tag over the next couple of months estimated at more than $3.9 billion.

Senate Democrats blasted Bush for the rising cost of the war and not seeking more international help in rebuilding Iraq in the face of skyrocketing US budget deficits.

But the human cost is becoming all too clear as US forces come under daily attack in Iraq. The attacks have continued despite a crackdown by US troops in areas north of the capital. The body of the dead soldier lay on the highway covered with a yellow sheet, his boot stretching onto the highway.

Helicopters hovered above and US soldiers stood guard, pointing their machineguns towards the edge of the road and peering through binoculars for other possible attackers.

About 40 Iraqis walked from their neighbourhood and watched. “We are happy because this is an occupation,” said Mansour Badri, a teenager who lives in a village nearby.

“The Americans lied to us when they said they would save us from Saddam. They just want to occupy our country.”

Badri and his friends said Baath Party supporters had been encouraging teenagers like them to fight against Americans and had offered them money.

The US has about 146,000 of its troops in Iraq, and US commanders have said they expect to maintain that troop level for the foreseeable future. The US military said in a statement today that 448 people had been detained since the beginning of Operation Soda Mountain launched on Saturday to crackdown on armed resistance.

The arrests in 71 raids included 38 individuals identified as key Saddam loyalist leaders. The forces confiscated 102 AK- 47s, 387 125 mm mortar rounds, and four 60 mm mortar tubes.

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