BAGHDAD, Iraq – A top Iraqi official accused the country's neighbors Tuesday of doing too little to stop foreigners from joining the brutal insurgency, while the U.S. combat death toll neared 1,000 with the killing of an American soldier in Baghdad (search).
Russian President Vladimir Putin (search) said he "cannot imagine" how Iraq's elections can go forward next month amid the violence.
In a speech to the Iraqi National Council (search), the deputy prime minister, Barham Saleh, said he was losing patience with Iraq's neighbors. He didn't single out any governments, but noted that Iraqi police had arrested a Syrian driving a car bomb packed with artillery shells and other explosives.
"There is evidence indicating that some groups in some neighboring countries are playing a direct role in the killing of the Iraqi people and such a thing is not acceptable to us," Saleh said. "We have reached a stage in which if we do not see a real response from those countries, then we are obliged to take a decisive stance."
Iraqi leaders have repeatedly called on their neighbors — particularly Syria and Iran — to guard their borders more closely against infiltration. Those countries have expressed concern that instability in Iraq poses a threat to the entire region.
U.S. soldiers, meanwhile, arrested several people described as suspected senior "transnational terrorists" in a raid Monday night on a sports complex in Baghdad, the military said Tuesday. It did not identify the suspects or say where they were from.
"This operation put a serious dent in the transnational terrorism in Baghdad," Col. Robert Abrams, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, was quoted as saying in a military statement.
The American soldier slain Tuesday was gunned down by small-arms fire while on patrol in Baghdad. As of 10 a.m. Tuesday, the Pentagon Web site listed the number of combat deaths as 999; it was not clear if the soldier was included.
The military also announced a Marine died in a vehicle accident in western Baghdad. The two deaths brought the number of U.S. military who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003 to 1,278, according to an Associated Press tally.
Also, three Iraqi National Guardsmen were killed in a roadside bomb attack Monday as they patrolled near Jebala, an Iraqi National Guard official said. And a roadside bomb exploded near a police patrol in Basra at 8:30 p.m., killing one policeman and wounding five.
Several attacks in recent days have resulted in more than 80 Iraqi deaths. The attacks are of particular concern because Iraqi forces and American officials have insisted they will go ahead with the Jan. 30 election and are hope to make the country secure enough so people feel safe to vote.
The Bush administration has said it plans to stick to the election date despite the violence and a call for postponement by several leading Sunni Muslim groups.
Some foreign leaders have expressed doubts.
With Iraq's interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi looking on, Putin expressed some of the most pointed and outspoken concerns Tuesday.
"Honestly speaking, I cannot imagine how it is possible to organize elections under the conditions of occupation by foreign forces," the ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Putin as saying at the meeting in Moscow. "At the same time, I don't understand how you alone can remedy the situation in the country and prevent its disintegration," Putin said, addressing Allawi.
There was no reported response from Allawi. Putin also said he expected the interests of Russian companies to be considered in Iraqi reconstruction, given that Russia was willing to join in writing off 80 percent of Iraq's debts to the Paris Club of creditor nations.
Arab League chief Amr Moussa warned Tuesday that a boycott of the election by Sunni Muslims would harm the political process.
"Boycotting the elections by any group of citizens or parties will harm the credibility of the elections. We want this process to start within an atmosphere of acceptability and support by all Iraqis," the secretary-general said.
The outgoing senior CIA officer in Iraq has also warned that getting the Sunni population to take part in the election was critical to its legitimacy, according to a U.S. official familiar with the classified assessment.
Sunni Muslims represent one-fifth of Iraq's nearly 26 million people and wielded power under Saddam Hussein. They fear the election will give Shiite Muslims, with 60 percent of the population, an overpowering grip on the nation. U.S. and Iraqi officials are concerned that a boycott by Sunnis could undermine the legitimacy of a new government.
Elsewhere, the U.S. military said American troops had captured 34 Iraqis, including 10 wanted for making explosive devices to attack coalition forces. The military announced that 14 other people suspected of making roadside bombs and car bombs were arrested Monday.
Also Tuesday, militants bombed two churches in Mosul, wounding three people, in attacks apparently aimed at stirring trouble between religious groups in the ethnically diverse northern city.