BAGHDAD, Oct 26: Five US troops were killed in Iraq, the military said today, edging their death toll for October close to 100 as President George W Bush faces pressure over the war 10 days before tight congressional elections.
Twenty-eight policemen were killed in a rebel ambush north of Baghdad, police said, as Iraqi forces continue to suffer even heavier casualties than their American counterparts.
Ahead of November 7 polls that may cost Bush's Republicans control of Congress, a survey found about 50 per cent of likely voters believe US troops should be pulled out of Iraq by the end of next year. Fifteen per cent want an immediate withdrawal.
The Reuters/Zogby poll also found that 41 per cent agreed troops should stay ''until the situation is stable'', despite losses that have seen 96 military deaths in October so far, the highest monthly toll for a year and nearly the highest in two.
Iraq's prime minister, given only qualified backing by Bush in comments this week aimed at reassuring Americans over his project in Iraq, criticised Washington for failing to bring security. He said his Shi'ite-led government could do so in six months if US forces gave them more weapons and responsibility.
Nuri al-Maliki told Reuters his police were having to share rifles but, with better American help, could bring respite from dozens of daily killings in half the 12-18 months the US commander in Iraq says is needed before Iraqis can take control.
''If, as we are asking, the rebuilding of our forces was in our own hands, then it would take not 12-18 months but six might be enough,'' he said. ''If anyone is responsible for the poor security situation in Iraq it is the (US-led) Coalition.
''I cannot move a single company without Coalition approval ... I have to be careful fighting some militias and terrorists ... because they are better armed than the army and police.'' US officials, training more than 300,000 Iraqi soldiers and police, are increasingly stressing their goal of eventually withdrawing their troops, as Iraq pitches toward civil war.
Spokesman Major General William Caldwell told a news conference: ''The achievement of our shared goal is ultimately the responsibility of the Iraqi people and their leaders.'' Bush said yesterday he would not leave American troops in the crossfire of a civil war and said his support for Maliki depended on him continuing to take ''tough decisions''. These include curbing Shi'ite militias blamed for death squad killings and addressing grievances among Saddam Hussein's Sunni minority.
PM DEFIANT Maliki, a Shi'ite Islamist, played down the role of Shi'ite militias and said Sunni insurgents were the main threat. He denied US assertions he had agreed to work to a ''timetable'' of performance ''benchmarks'' over the next year and dismissed suggestions Washington might oust him if those were not met.
''That would mean the failure of the entire political process,'' Maliki said.
Highlighting how tough a fight he faces, gunmen ambushed an Iraqi police convoy in a town north of Baghdad today, killing 28 policemen, including the commander. Another 25 were wounded. Earlier, gunmen attacked a station for a special police force in another town nearby, killing six and wounding 10.
The deadliest of 42 months of war for Americans was November 2004, when 137 died. Last October, 96 were killed, the highest toll since January 2005, when 107 US troops fell. In all, 2,809 have died in Iraq, an average of more than two a day.
The Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which ended this week, has usually seen an upsurge in violence. Caldwell said there was a sharp drop this week but it was too soon to call it a trend.
Four marines and a sailor died in combat in Anbar province yesterday, the military said today. A US commander said the military was taking an ''aggressive, offensive approach'' against Sunni militants in the provincial capital Ramadi.
US and Iraqi troops are also active in Baghdad, focus for sectarian violence. Maliki criticised a ground and air assault on a stronghold of the Mehdi Army militia loyal to Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a powerful force in his government.
He said a rogue Mehdi Army warlord known as Abu Deraa had escaped capture in the raid. He was critical of US tactics and of the fact he was not informed that the raid was also part of a hunt for a kidnapped US soldier, who is of Iraqi origin.
The soldier had left a US compound on Monday and was seized with his brother, who was later released, Maliki said.
US officers declined to give more details of what the unnamed soldier, a linguist, was doing at large in the Iraqi capital.