BAGHDAD— The U.S. military death toll in Iraq has reached 2,974, one more than the number of deaths in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, according to an Associated Press count on Tuesday.
The U.S. military announced the deaths of two soldiers in a bomb explosion southwest of Baghdad on Monday.
The deaths raised the number of troops killed to 2,974 since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks claimed 2,973 victims in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
"The joint patrol was conducting security operations in order to stop terrorists from placing roadside bombs in the area,” the military said in a statement on the latest deaths. "As they conducted their mission, a roadside bomb exploded near one of their vehicles.”
Another soldier was wounded in the explosion, the military said.
On Monday, British soldiers backed by tanks raided a police station in the southern city of Basra, killing seven gunmen in an effort to stop renegade Iraqi officers from executing their prisoners, the British military said.
Mohammed al-Askari, a spokesman for Iraq’s Defense Ministry, said the operation was coordinated with the Iraqi government. "Multinational forces got approval for this raid from this ministry and with participation of the Iraqi army,” he said.
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who is in charge of training Iraqi forces, said in Washington last week that efforts were under way to weed out Iraqi national police believed to be sympathetic to the militias.
Up to a quarter are thought to be aligned with the militias, which are engaged in sectarian violence.
The establishment of a viable Iraqi police force is vital to the U.S.-led coalition’s goal of handing responsibility for security to Iraqis, so foreign troops can return home.
In another sign of lawlessness in Basra, gunmen on Monday robbed $740,000 from a bank about half a mile from the raided police station.
The car bomb in Baghdad, meanwhile, struck a mostly Shiite district to the east that attracts crowds of shoppers and laborers looking for work.
In another part of eastern Baghdad, a suicide bomber exploded in a minibus, killing three people and injuring 19, police said.
Another suicide bomber killed two policemen at a checkpoint at a university entrance in Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, a stronghold of the Sunni-dominated insurgency.
The deaths came a day after Iraq’s interior minister said attacks targeting police had killed some 12,000 officers since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein.
Christians attended Christmas services in Baghdad and northern Iraq, home to most of Iraq’s 800,000 Christians. Some in Baghdad stayed home, however, fearing violence.
Christians are on the fringes of the conflict, which mostly involves Shiite Muslims and Sunni Arabs — but they have been targeted by Islamic militants.
"I hope next year will bring good things and unite all Iraqis because there is no difference between Christians and Muslims,” said Abu Fadi, a worshipper who does not use his Christian name because he fears for his safety. "May God bring relief from this.”
In another sign of escalating diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and Iran, the White House said Monday that U.S. troops in Iraq detained at least two Iranians and released two others who had diplomatic immunity.
U.S. officials have charged that Iran provides training and other aid to Shiite militias in Iraq — including the equipment used to build roadside bombs. The Tehran regime says it only has political and religious links with Iraqi Shiites.
But Iran is believed to be expanding its shadowy role in Iraq, partly to counter U.S. influence in the region.
In Baghdad, a spokesman for Iraqi President Jalal Talabani confirmed that U.S. troops had detained two Iranians who were in Iraq at his invitation. "The president is unhappy about it,” said Hiwa Osman, Talabani’s media adviser.
He gave no further details, and the U.S. military said it had no comment.
"We suspect this event validates our claims about Iranian meddling, but we want to finish our investigation of the detained Iranians before characterizing their activities,” White House spokesman Alex Conant said Monday. "We will be better able to explain what this means about the larger picture after we finish our investigation.”
He said that a routine raid on suspected insurgents netted the Iranians. Two had diplomatic immunity and were released to the Iraqi government, which then released them to Iran, Conant said.