BAGHDAD -- The U.S. military announced six new deaths Tuesday, making 2007 the bloodiest year for American troops in Iraq despite a recent decline in casualties and a sharp drop in roadside bombings that Washington links to Iran.
With nearly two months left in the year, the annual toll is now 853 — three more than the previous worst of 850 in 2004.
But the grim milestone comes as the Pentagon points toward other encouraging signs as well — growing security in Baghdad and other former militant strongholds that could help consolidate the gains against extremists.
A senior Navy officer, meanwhile, announced the planned release of nine Iranian prisoners and was at pains to say that a major cache of Iranian-made weapons and bombs displayed for reporters Tuesday appeared to have been shipped into Iraq before Tehran made a vow to stop the flow of armaments.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week that Iran had made such assurances to the Iraqi government. He did not reveal when the pledge was issued.
A decline in Iranian weapons deliveries could be one of several factors for the decrease in both Iraqi and American deaths over the past two months.
"It's our best judgment that these particular EFPs ... in recent large cache finds do not appear to have arrived here in Iraq after those pledges were made," Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, director of the Multi-National Force-Iraq's communications division, told reporters Tuesday.
Among the weapons Washington has accused Iran of supplying to Iraqi Shiite militia fighters are EFPs, or explosively formed projectiles. They fire a slug of molten metal capable of penetrating even the most heavily armored military vehicles, and thus are more deadly than other roadside bombs.
The No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, said last week that there had been a sharp decline in the number of EFPs found in Iraq over the last three months. At the time, he and Gates both said it was too early to tell whether the trend would hold, and whether it could be attributed to action by Iranian authorities. Iran publicly denies that it has sent weapons to Shiite militias in Iraq.
Two of the Iranians who will be freed "in the coming days" were among five captured in January in a U.S. raid on an Iranian government facility in Irbil, the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region in the north of the country.
The Americans said the five were members of Iran's elite Quds Force, an arm of the Revolutionary Guards. Iran said the five were diplomats working in a facility that was undergoing preparations to be a consular office.
Smith told reporters the identities of the nine Iranians would be released later. He said the decision to release the nine was made after they were determined not to be a threat to U.S. forces.
The positive moves toward Iran on Tuesday coincided with the opening of two Iranian consulates, the facility in Irbil that was shut by American forces after the raid, and a second in Sulaimaniyah, the largest city in the Kurdish zone.
Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and Iranian Ambassador Hassan Kazemi Qomi inaugurated the building in Irbil and said both would have full diplomatic status.
"This is a very important step to enhance relations and facilitate the commerce between the two sides," Barzani told reporters.
The Iranian ambassador charged the United States ran roughshod over Iraqi sovereignty in conducting the raid in January.
"The American forces breached Iraqi sovereignty by detaining the five Iranian diplomats at this same office in Irbil," Qomi said.
"Iran has strong ties with Iraqi society, and opening these consulates will strengthen these ties. It will also strengthen commerce and travel between the two sides," Qomi said.
The U.S.-backed Iraqi government has close ties to neighboring Iran, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has sought to bring the antagonists together in hopes that would reduce violence.
Iraqi Kurds, like the country's Shiite Arabs, maintain close ties with Shiite-dominated Iran, despite their warm relationship with the U.S.
Also Tuesday, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh rejected as interference in Iraq's affairs an Iranian offer of troops to help stabilize the country when U.S. forces leave. Iran floated the proposal at the weekend meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, of Iraq's neighbors, the European Union and the G-8.
"The Iraqi government rejects the plan offered by the Iranian Foreign Ministry. It (the Iraqi government) will not accept interference in Iraq's internal affairs by any country of the region," he said in a statement.
The noticeable drop in U.S. and Iraqi deaths in recent months follows a 30,000-strong U.S. force buildup, along with a six-month cease-fire order by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, among other factors. There were 39 deaths in October, compared to 65 in September and 84 in August.
Five U.S. soldiers were killed Monday in two separate roadside bomb attacks, according to Smith, the military spokesman. Later the military said a sailor had died of wounds from an explosion in Salahuddin province north of Baghdad.
The previous annual record for U.S. military deaths in Iraq, in 2004, coincided with larger, more conventional battles such as the campaign to cleanse Fallujah of Sunni militants as well as U.S. clashes with Shiite militiamen in the sect's holy city of Najaf.
But the American military in Iraq reached its highest troop levels in Iraq this year — 165,000. Moreover, the military's decision to send soldiers out of large bases and into Iraqi communities means more troops have seen more "contact with enemy forces" than ever before, said Maj. Winfield Danielson, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad.
"It's due to the troop surge, which allowed us to go into areas that were previously safe havens for insurgents," Danielson told The Associated Press on Sunday. "Having more soldiers, and having them out in the communities, certainly contributes to our casualties."
Also Tuesday, the U.S. military said Iraqi troops had discovered 22 bodies in a mass grave northwest of Baghdad over the weekend. The bodies were found during a joint operation Saturday. It was the second mass grave found in the area in less than a month.
After the discovery, U.S. and Iraqi forces launched an operation Sunday, including ground raids and air assaults targeting al-Qaida in the area, the U.S. statement said.
About 30 suspects were detained, it said. Two car bomb facilities and a number of weapons caches also were found.