By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 4, 2007 6:56 AM
BAGHDAD, June 4 -- A car bomb attack outside a major U.S. military base in Iraq discharged a gaseous cloud that sickened dozens of people Sunday, punctuating a flurry of violence that left 16 American soldiers dead during the first three days of June.
A 17th U.S. soldier, Staff Sgt. Juan Campos, died Friday in a military hospital in Texas, according to local news reports there. He had been injured by a roadside bomb near Baghdad in May.
The noxious gas cloud emanated from a bomb that exploded Sunday near the main gate of Forward Operating Base Warhorse, the largest U.S. military facility in Diyala province, a restive territory north of Baghdad. An Iraqi employee on the base said the bomb unleashed chlorine gas. The U.S. military cited an "unconfirmed report of off-color smoke" that caused soldiers to complain of "minor respiratory irritations and watery eyes," according to a statement. Soldiers were rushed to the clinic on base for treatment, but there were no deaths..
"Something made them feel ill," said Lt. Col. Christopher C. Garver, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. "What it is specifically, we haven't figured that out yet."
The use of chlorine gas has become a regular weapon in the Sunni insurgent arsenal but rarely has been used against large numbers of American soldiers. The attack typified the difficulties soldiers face in Diyala, the scene of some of the most deadly fighting in the country in the past few months.
About 3,000 additional U.S. soldiers were recently deployed to Diyala to battle a complex mix of Sunni and Shiite militant groups, and the American death toll there has risen steadily in recent weeks. Earlier Sunday in Diyala, a car bomb exploded as an Iraqi police patrol transported prisoners to a station in Balad Ruz, killing 15 people, including 11 police officers, and wounding 35, according to Lt. Mohammed Hakman of the provincial police.
On Sunday, the U.S. military announced that a series of other bombings and shootings, most of them in and around Baghdad, took the lives of 15 soldiers and wounded at least 22 since Friday. The independent website icasualties.org, which tracks U.S. military deaths, said another soldier also had been killed during the that time frame.
May was the third-deadliest month for American troops in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, and the casualties reported over in the past few days indicate that the insurgency shows no sign of abating.
"This is going to get harder before it gets easier. We're fighting a determined, adaptive enemy that's trying to derail the security plan and kill as many American soldiers as it can," Garver said. "This is how we're going to get to long-term security, through this short-term upswing in contact with the enemy."
U.S. military officials cite many reasons for the recent rise in fatalities, including the growing use of deeply buried, powerful roadside bombs that can blast through armored vehicles and the more aggressive tactics of American troops who are patrolling in greater numbers in unexplored areas.
The counterinsurgency strategy launched by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has moved soldiers off the sprawling, fortified American bases into smaller, more vulnerable outposts in violent neighborhoods to bring them into more sustained contact with the people they want to protect. But their presence creates more potential targets, as combat operations have expanded with the addition of five brigades of soldiers in Iraq, part of President Bush's troop buildup.
Most of the U.S. casualties since Friday resulted from roadside bombings, the deadliest weapon Americans face in Iraq. A roadside bomb northwest of Baghdad killed four soldiers on patrol Sunday, and two more soldiers were killed Saturday by a roadside bomb in Nineveh province, north of Baghdad.
In a series of other attacks, three soldiers were killed in Diyala province and six in the Baghdad area. according to the icasualties website. In one incident, U.S. military officials said, a soldier on foot patrol southwest of Baghdad spotted two men near a mosque who appeared suspicious. As the soldier approached to question them, one of the men detonated explosives, killing himself and the soldier.
Sporadic violence broke out elsewhere Sunday. Shiite militiamen from the Mahdi Army, loyal to cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, fought Iraqi soldiers and police in Diwaniyah, about 110 miles south of Baghdad. The clashes occurred as security forces conducted raids in the city, according to Iraqi police, while U.S. aircraft provided cover overhead. The fighting killed at least one Iraqi soldier and wounded 16 other people, said Brig. Gen. Sadiq Jaffar, commander of the Diwaniyah police.
"During the raids, some outlaws were carrying unlicensed weapons and they shot people in a random way in order to spread fear and terrorize the people," he said.
A spokesman for Sadr's organization in Diwaniyah said the violence began after Iraqi police violated a signed truce by attempting to arrest a senior Mahdi Army leader in the area without a warrant. The militia leader, Kifah al-Kuraiti, was wounded in the clashes, said Haider Nateq. Iraqi police said they had warrants for all their targets.
In Baghdad early Sunday morning, Iraqi special operations troops exchanged gunfire with insurgents while the troops were raiding a government building in search of a senior militia leader believed responsible for coordinating kidnappings and roadside bomb attacks, the U.S. military said in a statement. The military did not identify the government building or the suspected militia leader.
The U.S. military also reported that Marines, working with Iraqi soldiers and police in the western city of Fallujah, killed seven suspected members of the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, detained eight others and destroyed a truck bomb factory Saturday.
Iraqi police patrols in the capital found at least 21 bodies, the victims of apparent sectarian killings.
Staff writer John Ward Anderson in Baghdad, special correspondents Naseer Nouri and Waleed Saffar in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf and staff writer Debbi Wilgoren in Washington contributed to this report.