REUTERS , TIKRIT
Sunday, Jan 18, 2004,Page 1
Guerrillas killed three US soldiers and two Iraqi civil defense officials in a huge bomb attack north of Baghdad yesterday as Washington insisted it would hand over political power in Iraq in mid-2004 as scheduled.
The deaths take the number of US troops killed in Iraq since the invasion last year to 499.
The mounting death toll is a problem for US President George W. Bush as he seeks re-election in November this year.
Bush held talks with US governor of Iraq Paul Bremer on Friday after which Bremer said Washington was willing to adjust plans for handing over power to appease Iraq's top Shiite cleric, but was unlikely to meet his key demand for elections this year.
He also stressed that the June 30 deadline for transferring power to an Iraqi government would not be extended.
Bremer will meet with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan tomorrow and is expected to press him to send a UN team to Iraq to convince Shiites that direct elections are not feasible or suggest a workable compromise.
In the latest attack, a huge roadside bomb near the town of Taji, 30km north of Baghdad, set a Bradley armored vehicle on fire and killed five inside, said Lieutenant Colonel William Macdonald of the US Army's 4th Infantry Division.
Apart from the three US and two Iraqi deaths, two US soldiers were injured, he said. Troops also arrested three Iraqi men in a sweep of the area shortly afterwards when a truck they were traveling in was found to contain bomb-making material.
Meanwhile, Japanese troops arrived in Kuwait yesterday ahead of a humanitarian mission in Iraq in the country's most controversial military deployment since World War II.
The troops move into Iraq next week and any casualty could rock Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's government.
"We are making history today. It is the first time that we have Japanese troops going into a combat zone since World War II," US forces spokesman Captain Randall Baucom said.
In Washington, Bremer expressed "doubts" about Shiite demands for elections before the transfer of power, but said: "These are questions that, obviously, need to be looked at."
He said Washington may alter the way a transitional Iraqi assembly is selected and make other "clarifications," but gave few details.
Bremer's comments were unlikely to impress Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the most revered men in Iraq, who has demanded that the transitional assembly be elected, instead of being chosen by regional caucuses.
Aides have said he could issue a fatwa, or edict, banning his followers from cooperating with the US authority in Iraq if his demands were not met.
Bremer insisted before his planned meeting with Annan that the mid-2004 handover could not be changed.
"We have doubts -- as does the secretary-general -- that elections can in fact be called in the time frame of the return of sovereignty to the Iraqi people on June 30," he said.
Annan withdrew all international staff from Iraq in October last year after attacks on relief workers and the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad on Aug. 19 that killed 22 people.
Annan wants the UN role in Iraq clarified, clearly wanting to avoid rubber-stamping US policy.