New claims for unemployment benefits increased last week following three straight weeks of declines, the Labor Department said Thursday.

New applications filed for unemployment insurance rose to 353,000, an increase of 14,000 for the week ending Jan. 3. That compared to 339,000 new applications in the previous week, when claims were at their lowest level since President Bush's inauguration day, Jan. 20, 2001.

The report came on the eve of the government's report Friday on the overall civilian unemployment rate for December. The rise could have resulted in part from filings by people who took temporary holiday season jobs, but the Labor Department (search) did not cite any special factors.

The more stable four-week moving average (search) of claims, which smooths out week-to-week fluctuations, fell 5,500 to 350,250 last week. That was the lowest level since Feb. 3, 2001.

Despite last week's rise, claims have remained below 400,000 for 14 consecutive weeks, which economists view as a sign that the fragile jobs market appears to be turning a crucial corner.

The nation's unemployment rate currently stands at 5.9 percent — down from a high this summer of 6.4 percent. U.S. companies have added just 328,000 new jobs in the past four months, and analysts have been looking for stronger growth. They expected a smaller increase in jobless claims for last week.

Since President Bush took office, the economy has lost 2.3 million jobs, a development that Democrats hope to use against the president as he seeks re-election in November.

The Bush administration contends that stronger economic growth will eventually lead to more meaningful job creation on a sustained basis.

In Thursday's report, 32 states and territories reported an increase in initial jobless claims for the week of Dec. 27, and 21 reported an increase.

Michigan had the biggest increase, a gain of 20,583 that it attributed to layoffs in the automobile and transportation-equipment industries. Missouri reported the biggest decline, with claims falling by 2,566 because of fewer layoffs in the construction and service industries.