Seven U.S. troops killed in Iraq

Three U.S. soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in Northern Iraq and four Marines were killed in fighting in Anbar province, the military announced said Friday.

The four Marines assigned to Multi National Force - West were killed Thursday while conducting combat operations in Anbar, a predominantly Sunni province west of Baghdad that has seen a recent drop in violence, according to a statement.

Three Task Force Lightning soldiers also were killed Thursday when a bomb exploded near their vehicle in the northern Ninevah province, the military said separately.

The deaths raised to at least 3,760 members of the U.S. military who have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Violence also persisted against Iraqis on the Islamic day of rest.

About 160 kilometers (100 miles) west of Anbar's capital city of Ramadi, insurgents blew up two suspension bridges on roads leading to Jordan and Saudi Arabia, a police intelligence officer said on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

A roadside bomb struck an Iraqi army patrol near Baqouba, killing one soldier and wounding two, while another roadside bomb killed one civilian and wounded four others southeast of Baghdad, police officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.

Gunmen also opened fire on Sunni worshippers in a drive-by shooting following evening prayers late Thursday in the northern city of Kirkuk, killing at least three people and wounding four, police Col. Anwar Qadir said.

Anbar, a vast desert province that stretches west from Baghdad to the borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, has been a Sunni insurgent stronghold but attacks against U.S. forces and Iraqis have tapered off since many Sunni tribal leaders joined forces with the United States against al-Qaida in Iraq.

The Iraqi government announced Thursday it was adding millions of dollars to the budget of the western province of Anbar to help rebuild the region.

The step came days after a surprise visit to the province by U.S. President George W. Bush to Anbar where he met top Iraqi officials as well as tribal leaders.

During a conference held Thursday in the provincial capital of Ramadi, 115 kilometers (70 miles) west of Baghdad, the government allocated additional US$70 million (EUR51.2 million) to the Anbar budget, Interior Ministry official Col. Tariq Mohammed Youssef said. He added that 6,000 jobs will be created for Anbar residents, although he did not give more specifics.

Another US$50 million (EUR36.57 million) was allocated to compensate citizens who suffered from military operations.

The conference was attended by Iraqi Vice Presidents Tariq al-Hashimi and Adel Abdul-Mahdi, Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh, U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker as well as U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden, a Delaware Democrat.

Top tribal leaders from Anbar were also present, including Abdul-Sattar al-Rishawi, head of the Anbar Salvation Council that spearheaded the fight against al-Qaida.

U.S. and Iraqi officials have touted Anbar as a success story in Iraq even as criticism mounts over the Iraqi government's efforts to achieve political reconciliation on other fronts.

A series of recent reports have offered a grim assessment of Iraq's political climate and the performance of its security forces as the U.S. ambassador and the top commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus prepare for hearings with Congress that begin on Monday.

An independent panel led by retired Marine Gen. James Jones recommended that the Iraqis assume more control of their nation's security and that U.S. forces, seen as an occupying and permanent force, should step back. Its report, presented to Congress on Thursday, contended that "significant reductions, consolidations and realignments would appear to be possible and prudent."

The Jones panel also found that Iraq's security forces would be unable to take control in the next 12 months to 18 months and recommended that its national police force be scrapped and entirely rebuilt because of corruption and sectarianism.

The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, reported Tuesday that Iraq has failed to meet 11 of its 18 political and security goals. The agency's head, U.S. Comptroller David Walker, was scheduled to appear Friday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to discuss the report.

U.S. troop levels - currently at a record 168,000 - are expected to hit a high of 172,000 in the coming weeks, the Pentagon said Thursday.

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