Muwaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, said on Friday he expected the roughly 133,000 US servicemen to be cut to less than 100,000 by the end of 2006 and an "overwhelming majority" to have left by the end of 2007 under a US-Iraqi plan for the handover of security.

"We have a road map, a condition-based agreement where, by the end of this year, the number of coalition forces will probably be less than 100,000," he said.

"By the end of next year, the overwhelming majority of coalition forces would have left the country and probably by the middle of 2008 there will be no foreign soldiers in the country."

Al-Rubaie spoke as Iraqi and US forces announced they had killed a senior member of al-Qaeda in Iraq and as fighting in Baquba continued.

Al-Qaeda death

The interior ministry said Humadi al-Takhi, said to be a district commander, was killed in a raid on a house on Friday about 10km (6 miles) northeast of Samarra, north of Baghdad.

The US military said two other fighters were also killed in the raid. An intelligence official in nearby Tikrit said the raid followed intelligence reports.

A woman with her son who was 
was hurt by a bomb in Baghdad

It was not possible to verify the claim.

Al-Takhi was said to have replaced his elder brother, Najim al-Takhi, as al-Qaeda chief in Samarra after he was arrested in June last year while hiding in western Baghdad.

Najim's body was found in Baghdad's central mortuary in August, showing signs of torture.

On Thursday, Iraqi forces arrested another senior leader of al-Qaeda in the Tikrit region, Abdul Khadir Makhol.
 
American death toll

April became the deadliest month in 2006 for American forces in Iraq when a soldier was killed by a roadside bomb north of Baghdad. The US soldier on Thursday bringing the toll for the month to at least 67, according to an Associated Press count.

In March, 31 US soldiers were killed in Iraq, the lowest monthly toll since February 2004. At least 2,397 members of the US military have died since the Iraq war began in March 2003, according to the AP count.

Baquba fighting

A woman walks past a police
officer during a curfew in Baquba

The fighting in Baquba has continued to take lives, with the toll reaching 58, with the town remaining under curfew. Clashes and raids continued through the night into Friday morning, Iraqi officials said.

Major-General Ahmed al-Awad said that in addition to seven Iraqi soldiers killed, 49 fighters died and 74 others were arrested.

US officials said two civilians were killed and the wounded included 10 Iraqi soldiers, four policemen and four civilians.

Further incidents

Also on Friday, Iraqi police captain Jamil Hussein said a roadside bomb in south-western Baghdad killed one policeman and wounded two more.

Around the same time, police found the corpses of two middle-aged Iraqi men in a mostly Sunni Arab neighbourhood of western Baghdad, Hussein said.

A man kisses a poster of Saddam
Hussein in Samarra on Friday

The men, handcuffed, blindfolded and bullet-ridden, appeared to be the latest victims of a wave of kidnappings and killings by death squads that target civilians.

Two mortars were fired at the Green Zone in Baghdad. The heavily fortified area houses the Iraqi government and the US embassy. One landed inside the zone but failed to detonate, while the other exploded nearby on the other side of the Tigris River, the US military said. No casualties were reported.

One Iraqi soldier was also killed during a firefight in Ramadi.

It was also Saddam Hussein's 69th birthday on Friday. The occasion, which used to be a national holiday, passed with little attention.

Arrests

Also on Friday, AP reported that two members of a militia had been detained in connection with the murder of Mayson al-Hashimi, the sister of Tariq al-Hashimi, the vice-president.

A spokesman for the Iraqi Accordance Front, Dhafer al-Ani, gave no further details except that one of the militia members was wounded. He did not specify whether the suspects were from a Sunni or Shia group but said they were not members of al-Qaeda in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Mayson al-Hashimi, a member of her brother's party, was killed on Thursday by men firing from a car as she left her home. Her bodyguard was also killed.

Two weeks ago, the vice president's brother, Mahmoud al-Hashimi, was shot and killed while driving in Baghdad.