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December Marks Deadly Close for U.S. Military as New Era Begins in Iraq

2006 ended with a powerful reminder of U.S. losses in Iraq. Although the Pentagon has not yet confirmed it, media reports say the death toll for American troops has reached 3000. The New Year also marks a milestone for the war-torn region as Iraq begins the post-Saddam era.

Saddam Hussein's body was taken back to his hometown in Tikrit under cover of darkness to quell the possibility of violence. Despite intense security precautions, demonstrators -- some armed with guns -- came out in force to protest his execution.

Although the new year marks the end of an era and the start of a new one for some Iraqis, for U.S. troops, it was a grim reminder of the cost of war: December was the deadliest month for U.S. troops in two years.

And as 2006 came to a close, President Bush said his thoughts were with American soldiers. "People always ask me about a New Year's resolution. My resolution is that they'll [U.S. troops] be safe and that we'll come closer to our objective."

The stated objective: to bring peace and stability to a fractured Iraq, is expected to include a surge of new American troops. Military analyst Frederick Kagan at the American Enterprise Institute says the president has little choice but to act quickly. "The fact that Americans are dying puts a lot of pressure on the administration, as it should," he said.

The administration's strategy is expected to include renewed diplomatic efforts with Iraq's neighbors.

But Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution says the outcome of such talks remains in question. "Most Arabs are torn about Iraq. On the one hand, they really don't want to see Iraq fall apart. On the other hand, they really don't want to see America succeed in Iraq," says Telhami.

To succeed, Kagan believes the president will need to increase troop levels by as much as 35,000 before even entertaining any thoughts of a U.S. pullout. "There is no nice scenario where we can simply withdraw our troops and that ends the pain."

For Iraqis, who live with the threat of violence daily, a post-Saddam Iraq is not expected to bring an end to the sectarian fighting. Some say it could get worse. In this week’s issue of Newsweek magazine, international editor Fareed Zakaria, says many of Iraq's Sunnis see Saddam's rushed execution as more "farce and vengeance" than justice.

Some fear the images now circulating around the Internet of masked Shiite executioners taunting Saddam Hussein in his final minutes could further erode Sunni confidence in the country's government and make peace in Iraq harder to achieve in 2007.