By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 14, 2007
BAGHDAD, May 13 -- The insurgent coalition that includes al-Qaeda in Iraq asserted responsibility on Sunday for the ambush south of Baghdad that left four U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter dead and three other American soldiers missing.
A brief statement purporting to be from the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization that includes al-Qaeda in Iraq, appeared on insurgent Web sites a day after the fiery attack in the rural terrain near Mahmudiyah. The statement praised the insurgents for their "blessed operation" involving a "clash with a convoy of crusaders in Mahmudiyah," but offered few details and no evidence, such as photographs or video, to verify the claims.
"We will give you the full details about this blessed operation as soon as it comes," the statement said.
About 4,000 U.S. soldiers, backed by Iraqi troops, searched homes, palm groves and farmland on Sunday for the three missing soldiers. The attack occurred in an area, known as the Triangle of Death, that has long been considered a breeding ground for Sunni insurgents.
Iraq's deputy prime minister, Barham Salih, told CNN that "indications are that al-Qaeda and its affiliate organizations are responsible for this attack."
The American soldiers were not moving in a convoy at the time of the attack, but rather parked in two Humvees in an area 12 miles west of Mahmudiyah, attempting to prevent insurgents from laying down roadside bombs, said a U.S. military official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Americans frequently conduct such missions, known as "overwatch," to monitor suspected trouble spots at night. It is unusual to have American soldiers out on patrol in as few as two vehicles.
"This was not a convoy, they weren't roving, they were in a fixed location," the official said. "Their mission was to counter the emplacement of improvised explosive devices."
The coordinated attack began when a roadside bomb blew up on the soldiers, followed by gunfire, officials said. The two vehicles went up in flames and were spotted 15 minutes later by a surveillance drone, after a nearby unit that heard explosions could not make contact with the Humvees. The extent of the damage made it difficult to identify the slain soldiers.
On Sunday, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, the top American military spokesman in Iraq, said the interpreter and four soldiers had been killed. Military officials have so far been able to identify all but one of the soldiers, Caldwell said.
"Everybody is fully engaged, the commanders are intimately focused on this," Caldwell told Iraqi reporters, according to the Associated Press. The search involved "every asset we have from national assets to tactical assets."
Talk of the abductions spread quickly throughout the streets and mosques in Mahmudiyah. Residents said the soldiers had gone through hundreds of houses, shops and farms, through villages and along canals and rivers, while attack helicopters and surveillance drones buzzed overhead.
Ahmad Ali, 32, a high school teacher in Mahmudiyah, said he believed the missing soldiers must still be in the area, perhaps in tunnels built by insurgents, because of the massive American presence surrounding the area. The al-Qaeda in Iraq statement, devoid of details, suggested that "the leadership cannot contact its members in the city," he said.
Another resident, Raad Musleh al-Dulaimi, 41, said the locals were hesitant to provide information to Americans for fear of being detained or subsequently targeted by insurgents, presenting U.S. soldiers searching for tips with a common problem here.
The manhunt unfolded on a day when bombs detonated in front of the headquarters of a leading Kurdish political party in northern Iraq and ripped through a beleaguered Baghdad market.
The suicide truck bomb that exploded in Makhmur, near the southern border of the area known as Kurdistan, killed at least 50 people and wounded at least 115, according to government and hospital officials. The blast targeted the office of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the political organization run by Massoud Barzani, at a time when Kurdish politicians and police were meeting to discuss constitutional issues surrounding the fate of territory around Kurdistan, said Col. Khurshid Abdullah of the 3rd Iraqi Army Division.
The Iraqi constitution mandates a referendum by the end of 2007 to determine whether certain regions, including the oil city of Kirkuk, will become part of Kurdistan. The disputed territory is a sharply divisive issue, as efforts to expand Kurdistan tend to be seen by Sunni Arabs as an attempt to drive them out of the area.
The bomb used in Makhmur was hidden on a truck carrying food, officials said. It killed the town's police chief and wounded the mayor.
In Baghdad, a car bomb exploded in the Sadriya market in a largely Shiite district on the east side of the city, an area that has come under repeated attack. The blast killed at least 17 people and wounded 46, according to the Associated Press. In April, more than 140 people died when a bomb exploded near the market. As part of the effort to secure Baghdad, the U.S. military has erected concrete barriers around markets to try to limit vehicle traffic and prevent catastrophic explosions.
Two U.S. soldiers were killed Sunday and two were wounded when their patrols were struck by bombings in Salahuddin province and near Haditha, in western Iraq, the military said.
Special correspondent Waleed Saffar in Baghdad and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.