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U.S. military force in Iraq reaches its largest size yet

Times Staff Writers

The size of the U.S. force in Iraq has reached nearly 162,000 troops, the largest American presence at any point during the 52 months of the war, Pentagon officials said Tuesday.

The increase is the result of the regular replacement of troops and does not represent an additional buildup, said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman.

“There is no change to the level of effort and the combat power that we are projecting into Iraq,” Whitman said.

Officials reported Tuesday that five more U.S. troops had been killed in Iraq, bringing the total this month to 21, and putting the military on pace to see more than 100 deaths in August. Three of the soldiers were killed Saturday by a roadside bomb south of Baghdad. The two others died Sunday in Baghdad in mortar or rocket attacks. The British military also announced that a British soldier was shot and killed Monday in the southern city of Basra.

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Pentagon officials repeatedly have predicted that militants will try to step up the pace of their attacks before Gen. David H. Petraeus’ September progress report to Congress.

In July, 80 Americans were killed, compared with more than 100 in each of the three previous months.

The U.S. military has reported 3,680 deaths since the war began in March 2003, according to icasualties.org, a website that tracks military deaths.

Since the arrival in June of the last of the additional U.S. forces ordered to Iraq as part of the buildup, the number of troops in Iraq has held at about 157,000. Whitman said the total probably would return to that level in a few weeks, and then rise again as brigades rotate in and out of Iraq.

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The military typically has units overlap their tours in Iraq so the outgoing unit can help the new force acclimate. Army officials said the biggest reason for the current increase was that the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment arrived to replace the 2nd Infantry Division’s 3rd Stryker Brigade.

The previous high for U.S. forces was in January 2005, when the force level rose to 161,000 to coincide with Iraqi elections.

Although those elections were conducted successfully, the political system they eventually created has led largely to deadlock in Baghdad.

That paralysis continued this week with the boycott of the Cabinet by a secular political bloc led by Iyad Allawi, a former interim prime minister. On Tuesday, ministers with Allawi’s bloc called on Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to remove what they labeled sectarian bias from his government.

The boycott announced Monday by four ministers with Allawi’s Iraqi National List coalition follows the withdrawal last week of six Sunni nationalists. With the boycott, 17 of 37 members of Maliki’s Cabinet have left in protest. The absentees include the former justice minister, who resigned in March. He has announced his support of the latest boycott.

Although Allawi has been accused of trying to undermine the Maliki government, party members said Tuesday that they were not trying to win more power or weaken the prime minister.

The boycotting ministers will continue to run their ministries, but will no longer attend Cabinet meetings or cooperate with Maliki, said Iyad Jamaluddin, a Shiite Muslim cleric and parliament member with the Iraqi National List coalition.

Jamaluddin said the boycott was sparked by what he called Maliki’s unwillingness to consider a list of demands submitted by the bloc in February. Those demands included reconsidering the country’s anti-terrorism law, removing militia elements from the security forces, pardoning many former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist Party regime and suspending a law that bars Baath Party members from government jobs and pensions.

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“None of these points were for the benefit of the [Iraqi National List] slate,” Jamaluddin said. “They were for the correction of the political process and what we think is good for Iraq.”

It was unclear Tuesday how Maliki plans to handle the boycott, but his advisors have said he intends to replace the Sunni ministers soon. Maliki was in Turkey on Tuesday, meeting with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as part of a two-day trip that includes a stop in Iran today to meet with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“This will not affect the government,” he told the Associated Press in an interview aboard the plane en route to Ankara, the Turkish capital.

Police reported scattered violence across Iraq. In east Baghdad, a mortar round struck the crowded Kamaliya market at 1:10 p.m., killing four people, police said.

The U.S. military reported that five people were killed and 10 injured Monday when a street-cleaning vehicle struck a roadside bomb in Baghdad’s Karada neighborhood.

In the northern city of Samarra, a mortar strike killed two children and injured their mother Tuesday night.

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Times staff writers Raheem Salman, Zeena Kareem and Wail Alhafith and special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.


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