By Sudarsan Raghavan and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 13, 2007
BAGHDAD, May 13 -- A massive aerial and ground manhunt involving hundreds of American and Iraqi troops was underway Saturday for U.S. soldiers missing after an organized assault on a military patrol south of Baghdad. The convoy was carrying seven U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi army interpreter, and the attack left five dead and three missing.
The pre-dawn attack occurred 12 miles west of Mahmudiyah, a volatile city nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers within a rural region dubbed the Triangle of Death. It is known to be infiltrated by al-Qaeda fighters and other Sunni insurgent groups. As of early Sunday, no group had asserted responsibility for the attack, U.S. military officials said.
In the hours after the assault, and stretching into the night, American combat helicopters, surveillance drones and airplanes scoured surrounding areas, U.S. military officials said. Troops secured a wide perimeter, conducting door-to-door searches and erecting checkpoints to seal off roads and streets to prevent the missing soldiers from being transported out of the area. U.S. military officials also were enlisting local leaders in the search.
"Make no mistake," Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, the military's top spokesman in Iraq, said in a statement, "We will never stop looking for our soldiers until their status is definitively determined, and we continue to pray for their safe return."
A U.S. military source familiar with the manhunt said the two-vehicle convoy was struck with a roadside bomb, then was apparently ambushed by gunmen. Some of the soldiers had been shot. Flames consumed the vehicles, but it was unclear whether the explosion caused the fire or if it had been set later.
"It was a planned, coordinated attack," the source said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
It was unclear whether the interpreter was among those killed or missing, said Lt. Col. Christopher C. Garver, a military spokesman. Nor was it clear whether the interpreter was a soldier or a civilian, he added. The soldiers were assigned to the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division.
Several hours after the attack, the military had identified only one of the slain soldiers, a U.S. military official said on condition of anonymity because he was also not authorized to speak to journalists. This suggested that the corpses may have been difficult to recognize.
"Something pretty horrible happened last night," the official said.
The attack was the latest in a series of targeted strikes against American soldiers in recent weeks that have generated high single-day death tolls. On April 23, twin suicide truck bombings killed nine soldiers and injured 20 at a remote combat outpost in Diyala province. Last Sunday, a roadside bomb struck a convoy in Diyala, killing six soldiers and a Russian journalist, among eight U.S. soldiers killed that day.
The casualties underscore the growing vulnerability of U.S. troops in Iraq as they increasingly live in and patrol hostile terrain under a new counterinsurgency plan intended to wrest control of areas from insurgents. But the offensive has also multiplied the risks for U.S. troops as their enemies use their knowledge of the land and sophisticated guerrilla tactics to target them.
Saturday's attack occurred in the same region as one last June in which insurgents ambushed three soldiers manning a vehicle checkpoint near a power plant in the town of Yusufiyah. Spec. David J. Babineau, 25, died in the initial attack, and Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, 23, and Pfc. Thomas L. Tucker, 25, were abducted. Their bodies, showing signs of brutal torture, were found after a manhunt involving 8,000 coalition and Iraqi troops.
Securing the violent areas around Baghdad has become a primary focus of the security plan launched in mid-February and the additional troops ordered into Iraq by President Bush. One of the five newly deployed U.S. military brigades was assigned to the other side of the Tigris River from Mahmudiyah; it is working to stop the traffic of explosives into Baghdad and to disrupt areas where insurgents are believed to hide and plan their assaults.
Saturday's attack on the patrol began at 4:44 a.m.
"A nearby unit heard explosions and attempted to establish communications, but without success," Caldwell said.
At 4:59 a.m., an unmanned surveillance aircraft relayed images of two burning vehicles. By 5:40 a.m., a U.S. quick-reaction force had arrived at the scene, secured the site and launched the hunt for the missing soldiers, Caldwell said.
The mayor of Mahmudiyah, Muaiad Fadhil Hussein, said the attack happened near the village of Beshesha, west of the city. He described it as "one of the most dangerous areas of the city, in which Arab and Iraqi terrorists exist, and not even innocent civilians can enter it."
A curfew has been imposed on Mahmudiyah and surrounding areas, he said, adding that "we, as a mayoralty, are working to provide intelligence information and moral support" to the U.S. and Iraqi forces conducting the search.
Abdullah al-Ghareri, a well-known preacher in Mahmudiyah, said the forces, backed by helicopters and "tens of tanks," were conducting search operations into the night and had made some arrests. Residents said many insurgents had fled the city as U.S. forces entered it.
A senior Iraqi army official said he believed that the attack had been carried out by Sunni insurgents. "This area is really full of al-Qaeda members," the official said on condition of anonymity.
Mohamad al-Janabi, a reputed al-Qaeda member in the nearby city of Salman Pak, said in a telephone interview that he was unable to contact his comrades in Mahmudiyah to determine whether they were responsible for the attack.
But he added: "I can assure you that we will start pressuring Bush in a new way at the same time he is facing pressures from the Democrats and the American people. And there will be no problem to sacrifice 10 soldiers in order to abduct a single American soldier and get him on television screens begging for us to release him."
Garver, the military spokesman, said U.S. helicopters, planes, tanks and soldiers were outfitted with infrared and night-vision equipment, and thermal sights that can detect people through body heat, especially when the ground cools.
"We have great capabilities to continue the hunt through the night," Garver said. "We'll keep continuing to search."
In a separate incident, a soldier from the 89th Military Police Brigade injured Friday by a roadside bomb south of Iskandariyah, a town 18 miles south of Baghdad, died of his wounds, the military said in a statement Saturday.
Special correspondent Waleed Saffar and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.