In one of Iraq's deadliest days this year, five American soldiers and seven Iraqis were killed in a series of bombings and drive-by shootings on Saturday that clouded the start of a two-man UN security mission in Iraq.
Another US soldier died of wounds sustained in a rocket-propelled grenade attack on his vehicle on Sunday in the town of Beiji, north of Baghdad.
The latest US deaths brought to 240 the number of US soldiers killed in hostile action since US President George W. Bush declared major combat over last May.
Saturday's attacks happened near the western city of Fallujah, a stronghold of the Sunni Muslim elite that once ruled the country.
Two US pilots were killed late Friday when their helicopter came down near the northern city of Kayyarah, but it was not immediately clear whether hostile fire was involved.
A car laden with explosives ploughed into a military checkpoint west of Baghdad and exploded, killing three US soldiers and wounding six, the US military and witnesses said.
Three US soldiers "were killed and six were wounded when a vehicle-borne IED [improvised explosive device] detonated at Khaldiyah," 95km west of Baghdad, a US military spokesman said.
Khaldiyah lies between Fallujah and Ramadi, an axis of insurgency against the US-led occupation.
The attacks came as a two-man UN security team began a mission to Iraq, ending a general withdrawal of UN personnel three months ago ordered by Secretary General Kofi Annan after a spate of deadly bomb attacks on UN headquarters in Baghdad.
Efforts to lure the UN into a renewed role in the planned transfer of power from the US-led occupiers to Iraqis had been boosted earlier by a call from top Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani to halt protests against the plans.
The UN team was charged only with opening up channels of communication with the coalition, a spokesman said.
A separate security assessment would be needed if UN chief Kofi Annan announces the dispatch of a mission to assess the viability of immediate elections, as he is widely speculated to do next week.
Despite the violence, Japanese Defense Agency officials told ruling party lawmakers Saturday that the situation in the southeastern Iraqi city of Samawa was "relatively stable," setting the stage for the final deployment of Japanese ground troops, Kyodo news agency said.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was expected today to give the final go-ahead for the dispatch of the core group of ground troops making up Japan's 600-strong force in Iraq.
Last Monday, a 39-strong advance team of Japanese troops arrived in Samawa, marking the country's first military deployment in a hostile region since World War II.
The US-led coalition said it would be very difficult to hold the direct elections demanded by the Shiite Muslim hierarchy before a planned June 30 deadline for the transfer of sovereignty.
"We Americans feel strongly about direct elections ... the only issue is timing," said Dan Senor, the senior advisor to US civilian administrator Paul Bremer.
"There is no electoral structure in this country ... there has not been a census in this country for some 20 years ... there is no constituent boundaries, no voter rolls," he told a press conference.
"We consulted with a number of independent experts who voiced the view that it is very difficult to produce all those things, to create an environment where direct elections can be held freely and fairly and legitimately and credibly in a matter of three or four months."
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