US hunts for three missing soldiers south of Baghdad

United States-led troops combed orchards and searched farms after seven American soldiers and an Iraqi army interpreter were ambushed on Saturday in an al-Qaeda bastion south of Baghdad, leaving five dead and three missing.

The military said the patrol was attacked before dawn west of the town of Mahmudiya in the Sunni “triangle of death”, the same area where two US soldiers were abducted by al-Qaeda insurgents last year before their mutilated bodies were found.

Residents said on Sunday the patrol was ambushed by insurgents after it struck a roadside bomb on a rural road in an area of palm groves called Shibaiya, near the town of Yusufiya.

“We saw smoke rise from the area. Three vehicles were on fire and a fourth one had fallen into a canal,” said a farmer, who asked that his name not be used for fear of retaliation.

“US forces cordoned off the area and made arrests,” the farmer told Reuters as US helicopters hovered overhead.

The mayor of Mahmudiya, Muayed al-Ameri, also said the patrol had been ambushed and said the Iraqi army translator was among the missing.

“We have called the tribal leaders to help in the search for the kidnapped,” Ameri told Reuters.

The US military has not said if the Iraqi army translator was among the dead or missing, suggesting the five killed could be beyond initial recognition. The three missing soldiers are officially listed as “duty status and whereabouts unknown”.

Area sealed

The area where the attack took place has been a stronghold of al-Qaeda militants and other Sunni Arab insurgents since the US-led invasion in 2003, residents said.

One resident in Yusufiya said US helicopters had dropped leaflets offering a reward for anybody with information leading to the missing soldiers.

US and Iraqi troops taking part in a massive hunt involving helicopters, drones and jets searched homes, combed river canals and lush palm groves, and sealed off the area to prevent the attackers from escaping, residents said.

Last June, al-Qaeda militants kidnapped two US soldiers in Yusufiya in an attack on a US checkpoint in which a third US soldier was killed.
The mutilated and booby-trapped bodies of the two were found days later after a manhunt involving 8 000 US troops.

The US military said that a drone observed two burning vehicles, and when US forces arrived one hour after the attack they saw five soldiers dead. A unit that heard blasts had tried unsuccessfully to establish communications with the patrol.

The attack came as 30 000 additional US troops are being deployed in Baghdad in what is regarded as a final push to halt Iraq’s slide into all-out civil war between majority Shi’ites and once-dominant Sunni Arabs.

The three-month-old plan is also aimed at securing outlying areas outside Baghdad from where Sunni Arab militants are staging attacks against Shi’ites in the capital and elsewhere.

After falling sharply in the first weeks of the crackdown, the number of sectarian murders in the capital has risen. Police found 17 bodies with signs of torture on Saturday.

US President George Bush is under pressure from Democrats to set timetables for withdrawing American troops in a four-year war that has killed more than 3 300 U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis since the invasion in 2003. - Reuters

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