BAGHDAD, Iraq - Eight U.S. Marines were killed in two separate incidents in Iraq's restive Anbar province, the military said today, a day after American warplanes pounded Fallujah with missiles as insurgents battled coalition forces in the city.
The deaths equaled the highest number of Marines killed in a single day since a car bomb killed eight outside Fallujah on Oct. 30, which was the deadliest attack against the U.S. military in nearly six months.
It was unknown if the deaths Sunday were connected to the fighting in the volatile western Iraqi city of Fallujah. In a statement, the military said the seven Marines with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force died while conducting "security and stabilization operations" in Anbar province, a vast region that comprises Fallujah and Ramadi.
The military had earlier reported another U.S. Marine death Sunday in Anbar.
The statement gave no other details about the deaths, saying the release of more information could place U.S. personnel at risk.
As of today, at least 1,296 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Fallujah was the scene of a weeklong U.S.-led offensive last month to uproot insurgents based in the city.
The latest violence began when American and Iraqi forces clashed with guerrillas in several suburbs and ended with U.S. airstrikes on suspected insurgent hideouts.
"The strikes were conducted throughout the day and were called in by troops in (armed) contact with and observing the enemy moving from house to house," spokesman Lt. Lyle Gilbert said.
Fallujah resident Abdullah Ahmed said the fighting started after U.S. soldiers brought 700-800 men into the city to clear rubble from damage caused by November's offensive.
Meanwhile, several detained leaders of Saddam Hussein's regime began refusing meals in apparent protest against their upcoming trials, U.S. military officials and a lawyer said Sunday. Former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein was not among them.
In Jordan, Saddam's attorneys argued ahead of Monday's first anniversary of his capture that the former president was being held illegally by U.S. and Iraqi authorities.
"It was more of a forced abduction that later became compulsory concealment and solitary confinement, acts rejected by all international conventions," said a statement released Sunday by the team, which cited human rights conventions Washington allegedly had violated.
Saddam's lawyers were appointed by his wife, Sajida, but have not been able to contact their client. None were at his side when he was arraigned July 1 in Baghdad on preliminary charges, including killing rival politicians, gassing Kurds, invading Kuwait in 1990 and suppressing popular uprisings in 1991.
The military said Sunday a soldier was killed a day earlier in a roadside bomb blast in the capital's northern suburbs. Three other soldiers also were wounded in the ambush.
Iraq's postwar political hopefuls continued jostling for position ahead of Jan. 30 elections, the first such polls to be held since Saddam's overthrow.
Two moderate, mainly Sunni Muslim parties announced they would field slates for the polls, indicating an apparent strengthening of support for the vote among the religious minority, despite calls from some Sunni politicians for a boycott.
Sunnis traditionally have enjoyed significant privilege in Iraq, but have lost their political ascendancy since Saddam's fall. The country's majority Shiites - numbering 60 percent of the population - are expected to exploit their weight of numbers and dominate the post-election legislature.
"They (the Sunnis) realized that there was no chance for postponing and that it's better to participate," said Nehro Mohammed Abdul-Karim Kasnazan, a leader of the Coalition of Iraqi National Unity, which is fielding a 275-member slate for the polls.
The Constitutional Monarchy Movement, a moderate Sunni-dominated group seeking the restoration of a constitutional monarchy, also announced a list of 275 election candidates. The slate is headed by Sharif Ali, a cousin of Iraq's last king - who was killed in a 1958 military coup, and includes Kurds and Shiites.
A former Governing Council member, Naseer al-Chadarchi, announced that his Patriotic and Democratic Party, another moderate Sunni fringe movement, would field at least 40 candidates, including Shiites from southern Iraq, according to aide Omar al-Ma'arouf.
"Despite the party's insistence on postponing the elections, it will participate with a separate list" of candidates, al-Ma'arouf said.
Iraq's U.S.-backed interim government has said the Jan. 30 vote must go ahead, despite a rampant insurgency fueled mainly by Sunni extremists targeting U.S. forces and Iraqi's nascent security forces in a bid to derail the elections.
"We have a full desire that all Iraqis will participate, despite their color, sex, race, religion or their political background, because Iraq belongs to all Iraqis," interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said on Iraqiya TV.
Elsewhere, two insurgents died after detonating their explosives-packed car alongside an American M1 Abrams battle tank in Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, at about 10:45 a.m., military spokesman Staff Sgt. Robert Powell said. No soldiers were wounded and the tank sustained negligible damage.
Four decapitated bodies in civilian clothes were found south of Baghdad and their identities were unclear, police said. The victims, believed to be Iraqis, were found in Haswa, about 25 miles south of the capital.
Associated Press reporters Mariam Fam in Iraq and Jamal Halaby in Jordan contributed to this report.