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Nine more American troops died in Iraq, the US military reported Monday, five of them in a vehicle accident in a remote, rain-soaked area of western Iraq. Their deaths brought the number of service members killed so far this month to 13 - nearly half the number who died in the whole of March.
Three more Americans - two Marines and a sailor - were missing in the Sunday accident in which a truck overturned near Asad air base, a US statement said. All the dead were Marines, the statement added.
It gave no reason for the accident except that it was not due to hostile fire. Heavy rains fell over the remote area over the weekend.
Also Sunday, three Marines and a sailor were killed by "hostile fire" in Anbar province, which also includes the Asad base, the military said. No further details, including the precise location, were released.
It was the first time that four American troops had been killed in a single attack since Feb. 22, when four soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division died in a bombing in northern Iraq.
A total of 31 US troops died in Iraq in the whole of March, the lowest monthly death toll for US forces since February 2004. Four troops were killed on the first day of April, including two pilots who died when their Apache helicopter crashed.
US officials said the helicopter was probably shot down. The militant al-Rashideen Army, claimed responsibility, and Al-Jazeera television aired footage Monday provided by the insurgents which they claimed showed parts of the wreckage.
Although US casualties have been on the decline, deaths among Iraqis have increased due to rising tensions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. At least 1,038 Iraqi civilians died last month in war-related violence, according to an Associated Press count.
The AP count showed at least 375 Iraqi civilians killed in December, 608 in January and 741 in February. Most of the increase appeared due to a sharp rise in the number of civilians found dead throughout Baghdad - apparent victims of sectarian reprisal killings.
The alarming rise in civilian toll has put new urgency into efforts by Iraqi politicians to form a new national unity government following the December elections. That message was delivered by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw during a two-day visit that ended Monday.
"First and foremost, the purpose of this trip is to encourage and to urge the Iraqis to do what the Iraqis must do because the Iraqi people deserve it," Rice said. "But yes, the American people, the British people ... need to know that everything is being done to keep progress moving."
During their visit, Rice and Straw avoided any public call for Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to step aside as the Shiite nominee for a second term - a key demand of Sunni and Kurdish politicians before they will join a new government.
Nevertheless, the visit clearly increased pressure on al-Jaafari, and for the first time officials of his own Shiite bloc called for him to step down.
Following the visit, al-Jaafari's supporters scrambled Monday to try to rally support for him, even as other politicians sought ways to remove him if he refused to step down.
"We're waiting to hear the final position of the other blocs," al-Jaafari ally Ali al-Adeeb said. "Then we will study their position and decide. It is still to early for the (Shiites) to decide whether al-Jaafari's nomination should be withdrawn."
Al-Jaafari's critics accuse him of failing to curb the Sunni-dominated insurgency and calm tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, which escalated after the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra. That triggered a wave of sectarian attacks that threaten to plunge the nation into civil war.
In the latest violence, at least 12 Iraqis were killed Monday in three vehicle bombings in mostly Shiite areas of the capital, police reported. Ten of the victims died when a suicide driver detonated a truck filled with dates as worshippers were leaving the al-Shroofi mosque after evening prayers.
Another 38 people were injured in the attack, police and hospitals said.
Two others were killed in a car bombing in the Sadr City area, in which 10 others were wounded. The third bomb exploded in the central district of Karradah, wounding six, police said.
Late Sunday, four Shiite civilians died when gunmen burst into their home in the religiously mixed Dora district of southwestern Baghdad. Police said the assailants lined up a brother, two sisters and an uncle against a wall and killed them.
The father of the family, a grocery shop owner, had been killed six months earlier by gunmen in the same neighborhood, police said. The mother was visiting relatives when the attack occurred on Sunday, police said.
Elsewhere, six people - including a navy officer and two policemen - were killed Monday in a drive-by shooting in the southern city of Basra, police said.
North of the capital in Nibaie, gunmen killed two truck drivers and kidnapped another while they were carrying construction materials to the US military base in Balad, police said.