Three US marines were killed in separate incidents on Thursday in the western Anbar province, home to the city of Falluja, the US military said in a statement.

 

"In three separate incidents, one marine assigned to the First Marine Expeditionary Force was killed in action and two died of wounds sustained in action [on] 16 September," the statement read.    

 

In the first 16 days of September, 51 US soldiers have been killed, in addition to one UK and three Polish soldiers. The Department of Defence does not release daily figures on the number of wounded.

 

Grim prospect

 

The latest military casualties came on the heels of a report which painted a grim prospect for US involvement in the oil-rich, but war-torn country.

 

The National Intelligence Estimate, prepared by the National Intelligence Council, outlines three possibilities for Iraq through the end of 2005.

 

The worst scenario foresees developments that could lead to civil war, while the most favourable predicts a tenuous stability in political, economic and security terms, officials familiar with the report said.

 

The assessments, made before the recent surge in violence in Iraq and the US military death toll there topping 1000, appear to conflict with Bush's upbeat description of the US-led effort to stabilise and democratise Iraq.

 

'Out of touch'

 

Bush insisted the US strategy in Iraq, where the number of wounded US troops surpassed 7100, was working as he campaigned in Minnesota, a traditionally Democratic state Republicans are targeting in the 2 November election.

 

"In Iraq, there's ongoing acts (sic) of violence," Bush told a rally in St Cloud. But he said "Freedom is on the march" as he tried to woo voters with his campaign credo of a "war president" in the election battle against Kerry.

 

Bush's statements came after the National Intelligence Estimate was made public in US media, but he made no mention of it in his campaign stop.

Candidate Kerry has sharpened
his attacks on the Iraq issue

 

Kerry, on the other hand, lashed out at the president claiming he was out of touch with events in Iraq and lying to the American people about the dire situation 19 months after the invasion of the country.

 

"The president stood right where I'm standing and did not even acknowledge that more than 1000 men and women have lost their lives in Iraq. He did not tell you that with each passing day we're seeing more chaos, more violence, more indiscriminate killings," Kerry said in remarks prepared for delivery to the National Guard Association of the United States on Thursday.

 

Surge in violence

 

"He did not tell you that with each passing week our enemies are getting bolder, that Pentagon officials report that entire regions of Iraq are now in hands of terrorists and extremists. He did not tell you that with each passing month stability and security seem further and further away," Kerry added.

 

On Thursday, there was more bloodshed in Iraq as roadside bombs continued to target US military convoys and US snipers killed four Iraqis in Ramadi.

 

Aljazeera has learned that US soldiers and marines have withdrawn from the centre and eastern neighbourhoods of Ramadi, after launching a massive sweep that resulted in killing seven Iraqi civilians and injuring five others on Thursday.

 

"The operation was designed to discover and remove illegal weapons and ammunition caches, and to disrupt a terrorist network, which is responsible for several attacks against multi-national forces and Iraqi civilians in Anbar province," a US military statement said.

 

Headless corpses

 

In the northern city of Mosul, the Iraqi National Guard building came under mortar attack. One shell is believed to have missed its target and wounded two civilians who lived close by.

 

Late on Thursday night, Iraqi police said they had found the body of a man believed to be a Westerner near Samarra, just north of Baghdad.

Headless corpses were found by
the Iraqi police on Thursday

 

Police said the corpse was bloated, suggesting the person had been dead for some time.

 

Earlier, the decapitated bodies of three men, their heads strapped to their backs, were found dumped in nylon bags by a roadside north of Baghdad, Iraqi police and US officials said.

 

The bodies were discovered on Wednesday by a group of Iraqi National Guardsmen shortly after dawn as they patrolled near the town of Dujail, 60 km north of the capital.

 

The US military said initial indications were that the dead men were Arabs.