Two U.S. Soldiers Missing After Checkpoint Attack

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 18, 2006

BAGHDAD, June 17 -- U.S. and Iraqi forces conducted a sweeping hunt Saturday for two American soldiers missing after a clash with insurgents in Yusufiyah, south of Baghdad, raiding houses, scanning the scene from aircraft and deploying divers to search waterways.

One American soldier was killed in the incident, in which insurgents attacked a vehicle checkpoint in the restive Sunni Arab town just before 8 p.m. Friday. The names of the dead and missing soldiers are being withheld until their families can be notified, the military said.

"We are using all available assets, coalition and Iraqi -- ground, air and water -- to locate and determine the duty status of our soldiers," Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, a U.S. military spokesman, said in a televised statement Saturday.

Before this week, only one U.S. soldier missing in Iraq remained unaccounted for. Sgt. Keith "Matt" Maupin was abducted April 9, 2004, after his convoy was attacked on Baghdad's airport road. Insurgents later released a video that purported to show Maupin being shot dead, but the military deemed it inconclusive.

Word of the missing troops came as insurgents in and around Baghdad thwarted a heavy police and army presence and carried out six attacks that killed at least 35 people, most of them Iraqi police and soldiers. In recent days, the capital has seen increased numbers of checkpoints, patrols and raids as part of a new security initiative from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.

The deadliest attack Saturday came in the northern neighborhood of Zayouna, home to many former officers in Saddam Hussein's army, where a suicide car bomber struck a joint Iraqi police and army checkpoint, killing 12 members of the security forces and wounding 22, according to Brig. Gen. Arkan Yahiya of Iraq's Interior Ministry.

Seven other members of Iraq's security forces were killed when a car bomb blasted a checkpoint near Iraq's National Theater in the southern neighborhood of Karrada, police officials said. A car bomb at a checkpoint in Mahmudiyah, south of Baghdad, also killed seven.

In the Shiite-majority neighborhood of Kadhimiyah, northwest of downtown, three nearly simultaneous explosions rocked a crowded market early Saturday morning, killing a father and son and wounding 15 others, according to Ahmad Hussein, a doctor at nearby Kadhimiyah Hospital. The blast took place near a prominent Shiite shrine frequented by pilgrims.

"I came from Najaf to visit the shrine, and after I finished the visit I was drinking water with my wife when the explosion took place," said Natiq Gati, 55, who was badly burned from head to toe. "I felt the heat on my back."

"What security plan are they talking about?" said Hussein Kadhum, 21, who was visiting the shrine Saturday. "The whole area is cordoned and the police and army are everywhere and are searching everybody. So who can bring explosives inside this area unless there are people with the security forces cooperating with him?"

The Mujaheddin al-Shura Council, an umbrella organization of insurgent groups that includes al-Qaeda in Iraq, also derided Maliki's security initiative as a "media show" and promised more attacks in the coming days, in a statement posted on a Web site used by insurgents.

In Yusufiyah, a U.S. military statement said a quick reaction force had arrived at the scene within 15 minutes of the clash that led to the disappearance of the two soldiers. Police and soldiers manning nearby checkpoints were ordered to stop civilian traffic and establish a perimeter around a concentrated search area. Helicopters, airplanes and unmanned drones were dispatched to provide surveillance, the military said.

In the heart of the violence-plagued Sunni Arab suburbs south of Baghdad, Yusufiyah has seen a series of military operations in recent months, including one in April in which former al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi -- killed this month by a U.S. airstrike -- was believed to have narrowly escaped.

As of late Saturday, U.S. and Iraqi forces had cordoned much of the town, and residents reported raids on houses and other buildings near the intersection of a canal and the Euphrates River where the attack took place. Residents said cellphone networks had been scrambled near the site of the attack and that soldiers were scrutinizing women wearing traditional head scarves to verify that they were not men.

"Make no mistake," Caldwell said. "We never stop looking for our service members until their status is definitively determined, and we will continue to pray for their safe return."

Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi, K.I. Ibrahim and Naseer Nouri contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company