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U.S. troops set trap for militants

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The U.S. military said on Thursday it was setting a trap to “eliminate” militants near Baghdad where 12 U.S. soldiers have died in the past two days.

Tens of thousands of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers are pushing on with simultaneous operations in Baghdad and to the north, south and west of the capital under Operation Phantom Thunder, a new plan aimed at rooting out al Qaeda fighters and other militants.

The latest offensives, which began in the past week, follow the build-up of U.S. military forces in Iraq to 156,000 soldiers and aim to deny militants sanctuary in the farmlands and towns surrounding Baghdad.

“If you’ve got it properly cordoned then they’re going to flee into somebody’s arms. It’s a trap,” U.S. military spokesman Rear Admiral Mark Fox said.

“To the extent that you can eliminate them, we will.” Hard fighting was expected in the next 45-60 days, he said.

Military commanders have said they anticipate greater casualties as their forces press on with a four-month-old Baghdad security crackdown and other operations around the city.

In the worst incident for the military in the past 48 hours, five soldiers were killed when a roadside bomb hit their vehicle during combat operations in northeastern Baghdad on Thursday. Three Iraqi civilians and an Iraqi interpreter also died.

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Another roadside bomb killed four U.S. soldiers in west Baghdad on Wednesday. Roadside bombs are by far the biggest killers of U.S. forces in Iraq. Two others died on Tuesday.

A total of 3,545 U.S. soldiers have been killed since the start of the war in March 2003.

On Baghdad’s southern flank, the military said 60 suspected insurgents were detained, 17 boats used to transport bomb parts in the capital were destroyed, and weapons caches were seized.

To the north, some 10,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops assaulted al Qaeda hideouts in an operation focused on Baquba, the volatile capital of Diyala province, that has killed 41 militants over the past three days, the U.S. military said.

Fox said it was too early to call Operation Phantom Thunder a turning point in the war but said the military was stepping up the pressure on al Qaeda.

“This is a military operation with clear objectives ... to set the conditions for the political and economic progress that the government of Iraq needs to demonstrate,” Fox said.

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U.S. President George W. Bush has sent 28,000 extra soldiers to help curb sectarian bloodshed and buy Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki time to reach a political accommodation with disaffected minority Sunni Arabs, who are locked in a withering cycle of violence with majority Shi’ite Muslims.

The key element of political goals set by Washington, a revenue-sharing oil law, advanced on Thursday after Kurdish officials from autonomous Kurdistan said they had reached a deal with the central government on sharing oil revenues.

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Under the agreement, the Kurdistan region will take 17 percent of all oil revenue from Iraq’s oil fields, the world’s third largest. But there is still a dispute over who will control the fields.

A suicide bomber killed 16 people by ramming his truck into a government building in a town near the northern city of Kirkuk.

The bomber struck a compound housing the municipal headquarters and local town council in Sulaiman Bek. The blast also reduced nearby houses to rubble.

Police and hospital sources said 16 people, including two children, were killed and 76 wounded. At least 10 city council members, including the mayor and the police chief, were among the wounded.

“I heard a huge roar. Then I didn’t hear or see anything anymore. There were many people wounded,” said Kareem Mohammed Nassif, a retired civil servant who was among the wounded.

Additional reporting by Dean Yates, Waleed Ibrahim and Ross Colvin in Baghdad