Six more US soldiers have been killed in Iraq, the military said Friday, as Congress grudgingly passed a 120-billion-dollar war funding bill despite plunging public support for the mission.
While attention has focused on the hunt for three kidnapped American troops and the debate in Washington, military casualties have been mounting; at least 44 more US soldiers have died since the trio was captured on May 12.
US command has confirmed that one of the hostages is dead and on Friday announced that six more soldiers have been added to the week's toll, bringing the total number of military dead since the invasion to 3,442.
These latest casualties came as a CBS News/New York Times opinion poll showed that a record number of Americans -- 76 percent -- think the war is going badly and 61 percent think the March 2003 invasion was a mistake.
Nevertheless, congressional Democrats gritted their teeth and voted to endorse another huge slice of cash for President George W. Bush's strategy, after he refused to allow them to tie funding to a timetable for withdrawal.
Lacking votes to override a presidential veto and fearful of being blamed if funding cuts hurt the military in the field, Democrats handed a tactical victory to the Republican minority by giving Bush what he wanted.
However, in a sign of how far the political wind has shifted in the four years since a US-led invasion force toppled leader Saddam Hussein, the two leading Democratic presidential hopefuls voted against the bill.
Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are battling for the support of their party's anti-war grassroots in upcoming primaries to select a Democratic candidate and are seeking to capitalise on growing public disenchantment.
"With my vote today, I am saying to the president that enough is enough," Obama said, while Clinton declared: "I believe that the president should begin a phased redeployment of our troops out of Iraq and abandon this escalation."
Despite recent setbacks, Bush is determined to push on with his so-called "surge strategy", under which the number of US troops in Iraq will increase to more than 160,000 in a bid to quell sectarian fighting around Baghdad.
The deployment of four additional combat brigades -- a fifth is due by next month -- has helped reduce death squad killings, but Al-Qaeda bombers continue their deadly campaign and fighting has worsened north and west of the city.
Two weeks ago, insurgents ambushed and wiped out a small US patrol manning an observation post south of Baghdad. They destroyed two Humvees, killed four soldiers and an interpreter and dragged off three American troops.
One of the three, Private First Class Joseph Anzack, was found on Wednesday floating in the Euphrates in Mussayib, 55 kilometres (34 miles) south of Baghdad. Iraqi police said he had been shot in the back of the head.
Thousands of troops are still searching for his missing comrades -- Private Byron Fouty and Specialist Alex Jiminez -- and May remains on track to be one of the deadliest months for US soldiers since the invasion.
Two were killed when their patrol hit a roadside bomb in the Sunni western half of Baghdad on Thursday, the military said in a statement. An Iraqi interpreter also died and another soldier was wounded in the blast.
Four more soldiers died in a series of attacks since Tuesday, it said.
Many of the dead were victims of roadside bombs, the single deadliest threat facing soldiers here. On Friday, US and Iraqi forces stormed the east Baghdad hideout of a gang suspected of smuggling these devices from Iran.
After calling in an air strike, the squad captured an Iraqi militant accused of "acting as a proxy for an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps officer", the military said, in the latest of a series of accusations levelled at Tehran.