BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Three more U.S. troops died in fighting this week, the military said Friday, raising to 54 the number of Americans killed in Iraq in December – nearly half of them in Anbar.

The month is shaping up to be one of the deadliest for Americans since the war started, especially for those trying to tame the Sunni-led insurgency in the volatile province west of Baghdad.

At least 25 of the U.S. troops killed this month – most Marines – died in the vast stretch of desert that extends from the capital to the borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Three U.S. aircraft also went down in a span of two weeks, starting with the crash of a fighter jet on Nov. 27.

The large number of casualties reflects the strength of Sunni insurgents, including al-Qaida in Iraq, in the region, even as violence in Baghdad shifts to a fight between Sunni and Shiite extremists.

It also comes despite a decision by some U.S. commanders in the area to pull troops out of combat missions and partner them with Iraqi army units as advisers and mentors.

With President Bush weighing strategy changes in the war, the U.S. Army’s chief of staff, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, said Thursday that Gen. George Casey, the top commander in Iraq, is considering shifting many troops from combat missions to training Iraqi units, among other options.

Two Marines died Thursday in fighting in Anbar province, the military said. In Ninevah province to the northwest, a soldier assigned to the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, was killed Tuesday, the military said.

At least 2,942 members of the U.S. military have died since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, meanwhile, issued his first public comment on a bipartisan U.S. report that said American policies in Iraq were failing and urged drastic changes.

“The report should have read the events more accurately and turned them into a good base for a solution. Instead, it contained contradictions in vision and recommendations,” al-Maliki said in an interview on the pan-Arab satellite station Al-Arabiya.

He said the 96-page report contained “good elements” regarding the political process and Iraq’s unity, but it also included “insults and negative directions” in regard to the Iraq conflict. He did not elaborate.

The prime minister’s comments were the latest in a flurry of criticism by Iraqi leaders, who have said the recommendations in the Iraq Study Group report did not acknowledge realities in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq and infringed on the country’s sovereignty.

The nonbinding report recommended direct engagement with Iran and Syria, approval of a law that could reinstate thousands of former officials of Saddam’s Baath Party to their jobs and a pullback of most American combat brigades by early 2008.

Al-Maliki also said he planned a Cabinet reshuffle but cautioned that he would carefully scrutinize candidates for ministerial posts and warned that he won’t accept candidates nominated by his coalition partners if he found them to be unqualified.

“I am not obliged to accept anyone and I will choose ministers myself if I have to,” he said.

The warning came as the Shiite prime minister’s “national unity” government is facing growing dissent by coalition partners, including Shiite allies like Muqtada al-Sadr, rival politicians seeking to sideline the anti-American cleric and Sunni Arab politicians.

Meanwhile, two suicide car bombs exploded Friday at U.S. checkpoints in the Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi and American soldiers opened fire to foil one of the attacks, an Iraqi police lieutenant said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was concerned for his safety. He said four Iraqi civilians were killed.

The U.S. military said it had no reports of suicide car bombings in Ramadi.

At least 34 people were killed or found dead Friday, including 22 bullet-riddled bodies discovered in several parts of the capital, apparent victims of sectarian death squads that have killed hundreds in recent months.

Gunmen also killed a Shiite tribal sheik linked to British forces in a drive-by shooting Friday in the southern city of Basra.

The slain cleric, Muhsin al-Kanan, was a member of the provisional council in Iraq’s second-largest city, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, and had good relations with British forces in the area, police said.

Britain has about 7,200 troops in southern Iraq, mostly in and around Basra, and Shiite factions and militias have been fighting for control of the area as they begin to withdraw from some of the provinces in the region. Attacks by insurgents from Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority also have occurred in the area.

A senior official from the Iraqi Red Crescent, meanwhile, claimed that harassment from U.S. forces is a greater threat to his group’s work than insurgent attacks.

“The main problem we are facing is the American forces more than the other forces,” Dr. Jamal al-Karbouli, vice president of the Iraqi Red Crescent, said in Geneva.

Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said the U.S.-led coalition forces “strive to ensure they are respectful when they conduct interaction with the local population.”

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