By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
BAGHDAD, May 14 -- As a massive hunt for three missing American soldiers continued into its third day on Monday, a front group for al-Qaeda in Iraq that claims to have captured them warned the U.S. military to stop searching, calling it "a venture in vain." The group suggested the abductions were to avenge the rape and killing of a 14-year-old girl in the same area and abuses committed by U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib and other prisons.
"We say to you that what search for your soldiers you may do will not lead you to anything except fatigue, and setbacks for you. Your soldiers are firmly in our hands," the Islamic State of Iraq said in a statement posted on insurgent Web sites.
"Remember what you had done in this area, when you violated our sister Abeer," the statement added, referring to Abeer Qassim al-Janabi. Five soldiers were charged in the March 2006 murders of Abeer, her parents and her younger sister. Three soldiers have pleaded guilty in the case.
Also Monday, six U.S. soldiers died in Iraq, the U.S. military reported. Four were killed in three attacks in Baghdad and southeast of the capital, and one in Anbar. The sixth soldier died of noncombat causes, the military said.
U.S. military officials also said Monday for the first time that they believed that fighters linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq had kidnapped the three soldiers.
"At this time, we believe they were abducted by terrorists belonging to al-Qaeda or an affiliated group and this assessment is based on highly credible intelligence information," Maj. Gen William B. Caldwell, the military's top spokesman, said in a statement.
The soldiers disappeared after a pre-dawn ambush on their patrol Saturday, 12 miles west of the town of Mahmudiyah, south of Baghdad, that killed four U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi army interpreter. The farming region, dubbed the Triangle of Death, is known to be infiltrated by fighters from al-Qaeda in Iraq and Sunni insurgents.
The Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group of Sunni insurgents said to have been created by al-Qaeda in Iraq, asserted Sunday that it had abducted the soldiers, but has yet to show proof.
If true, the abduction would underscore the growing vulnerability of U.S. troops as a recent counterinsurgency security offensive attempts to bring stability to Baghdad and other parts of Iraq.
On Monday, the U.S. military, in an unusual statement, provided more details of the incident, as well as an explanation of why it took U.S. patrols nearly an hour to reach the attack scene.
The seven U.S. soldiers and their Iraqi army interpreter, in two Humvees, were patrolling the area looking for insurgents planting roadside bombs, Caldwell said. At 4.44 a.m., other members of the unit positioned elsewhere heard an explosion. They attempted to contact their comrades, but got no response. They requested an aerial drone to assess the situation on the ground, Caldwell said. At 4:59 a.m., the drone reported back images of the two Humvees burning.
Two patrols were "immediately" dispatched to the scene, Caldwell said. But the first team encountered two roadside bombs, while the second found an additional roadside bomb, he said.
"By 5:40 a.m., both units were at the scene, began securing the area and initiated a search for the soldiers who failed to respond," the spokesman said. "By 8:04, the responding units were able to finally confirm the deaths of five soldiers."
On Monday, thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops backed by helicopters, planes and aerial drones scoured the rural areas around Mahmudiyah, as well as nearby towns such as Latifiyah, residents and U.S. military officials said. The searches included mosques, farms, shops and deserted buildings, residents said.
The troops included intelligence operatives and interrogators, as well as teams with search dogs, said Caldwell, adding that local Iraqis were providing an abundance of tips that were leading to operations in the area.
But residents of Mahmudiyah complained in interviews about the intensive door-to-door searches, saying the tactic was disrupting their lives.
Ayman Taha, 39, a bank employee, said he hadn't gone to work in three days because he was worried about leaving his wife and children alone in their house.
"Life is almost stopped and the city has become an open field for the military forces," said Taha, adding that 10 U.S. and Iraqi soldiers had entered his house, gone through clothes and searched storage rooms, even the water tank.
"They even examined my personal computer and asked me questions like: Where do you work? And what is your stand on the American Army? Do you support the Sunni fighters or not? Do you have any information or things that you want to mention to us but you are afraid to come to our base?" Taha said.
After the soldiers left, he said, they marked his house with an "X" to indicate that it had been searched.
Special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim, Saad al-Izzi and Waleed Saffar in Baghdad and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.