AP- - Insurgent attacks killed five more American troops west of the Iraqi capital, the military said Friday, making December the second deadliest month for U.S. servicemen in 2006.
So far this month, 76 American troops have died in Iraq, the same number that were killed in all of April. With nine days remaining in December, the monthly total of U.S. deaths could meet or exceed the death toll of 105 in October.
As American deaths in the war pushed closer to 3,000, Iraqis continued to fall victim to sectarian violence between Shiites and Sunnis. Police recovered 21 more bodies in the cities of Baghdad, Baqouba and Kut. With 140,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq, President Bush is considering whether to send thousands more to control the bloodshed.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates flew back to Washington on Friday to give Bush his advice on transforming U.S. policy in Iraq after holding three days of talks in the war zone with military and political leaders. Gates was scheduled to see the president at the mountain retreat of Camp David, Md., on Saturday.
The White House said Bush would meet with his full National Security Council next Thursday during a stay at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. That session is designed to whittle down the options rather than make final decisions, said Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman.
Before leaving Baghdad, Gates declined to say whether he plans to recommend a short-term increase in U.S. troop levels, but said he believes there is "a broad strategic agreement between the Iraqi military and Iraqi government and our military."
"There is still some work to be done," Gates said. "But I do expect to give a report to the president on what I've learned and my perceptions."
Britain's Defense Secretary Des Browne acknowledged Friday he may have to increase the size of Britain's armed forces as a result of commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan — echoing military expansion plans being considered in Washington.
Browne told the Times of London he could consider increasing the size of the armed forces from 95,560 because current deployments had left too little time for training exercises.
"People imagine that the best form of training is to be in Iraq or Afghanistan, but it's not true," Browne was quoted as saying by the newspaper. "While we are deploying troops in their thousands, we lose the chance to build up their basic skills."
Poland, which has 900 soldiers in Iraq, agreed Friday to extend its mission in Iraq until the end of 2007. The Poles focus mainly on training Iraqi security forces and are based in an area south of Baghdad that is calmer than the capital.
Also Friday, South Korean lawmakers endorsed a motion to extend the country's deployment in Iraq for another year, but cut the number of troops in half. The motion calls on the South Korean government to withdraw 1,100 troops of its 2,300-strong contingent in the relatively peaceful, northern city of Irbil by April.
The five U.S. deaths announced Friday took place over two days. One soldier died and another was wounded Friday when their patrol came under fire west of Baghdad, the military said. On Thursday, three Marines and one U.S. sailor died from wounds sustained in combat in western Anbar province.
At least 2,964 American troops have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Meanwhile, Shiites from parliament's largest bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, met Friday in Najaf amid efforts to craft a new coalition that would also include and Kurds and one Sunni party. They had traveled to the holy city to seek approval for the plan from the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a revered Shiite cleric who is said to be alarmed at the bloodshed sweeping swathes of the country.
It was unclear whether such a coalition would be able to govern effectively without the backing of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's 30 loyalists in the 275-member parliament, and his six ministers in the 38-member Cabinet.
The builders of the new coalition are trying to exclude al-Sadr, whose faction has been an integral part of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government but has been boycotting the parliament and Cabinet to protest al-Maliki's recent meeting with Bush.
Officials close to the militia leader said he has agreed to end the three-week boycott and allow supporters to rejoin the government. The anti-American cleric's followers appear to have decided to go back to parliament to strengthen their bargaining power — backed up by a militia army — and avoid political isolation.
The Sadrist walkout has prevented the government from passing laws, contributing to a sense of political crisis alongside a deteriorating security situation.
On Friday, a car bomb killed two people and wounded four in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, police said. A roadside bomb struck a police patrol near the national theater in Baghdad, wounding two policemen.
U.S.-led forces launched raids across the country, killing one militant and capturing several dozen other suspects, the military said.
The operations targeted foreign fighters and al-Qaida in Iraq, the military said. The suspects were believed to be responsible for the movement of foreign fighters, car bombs and other attacks, it said. An al-Qaida in Iraq financier was captured, the statement said.
The purported leader of an al-Qaida-linked militant group offered U.S. troops a one-month truce to withdraw from Iraq without being attacked, according to a speech posted on an Islamic Web site Friday.
The leader of the "Islamic State of Iraq," Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, also called on former officers in Saddam Hussein's disbanded army to join his militia, promising to provide them with a salary and house so long as they could recite Quranic verses.
The authenticity of the audiotape could not be verified but it appeared on a Web site known for displaying militant groups' statements. The "Islamic State of Iraq" is believed to be an umbrella group for militant organizations, including al-Qaida in Iraq.