BAGHDAD, Iraq - A U.S. soldier and his Iraqi interpreter were killed yesterday when gunmen ambushed their two-vehicle convoy with explosives and automatic weapons in a Baghdad neighborhood where there have been at least four other attacks in recent weeks.
Three other soldiers were wounded in the incident, one of them shot in the neck, said soldiers who arrived on the scene after the ambush. All were members of a civil affairs detachment assigned to the Army's 1st Armored Division, soldiers said.
The attack brought to at least seven the number of U.S. soldiers who have been killed in Iraq in the past week and to 175 the number of U.S. and British troops who have died in combat since the war began March 19, said military officials.
A military statement said one soldier's Humvee struck a homemade bomb, and the convoy was attacked with small arms fire. Soldiers who arrived later gave a slightly different account, describing a more sophisticated ambush in which a sniper shot one soldier in the neck, a rocket-propelled grenade struck one vehicle, and gunmen hiding in nearby brush sprayed both Humvees with automatic weapons fire and fled.
"The first vehicle was hit as it went around that corner up there," said 1st Armored Division Sgt. Wascar Diaz, 27, of Tampa, Fla. "The passenger in the first vehicle was hit in the neck by a sniper. An RPG was fired at the second. That's when they heard the explosion, and all hell broke loose."
A concrete-brick wall on the far side of the bend may have provided cover for the sniper, said Diaz and other soldiers. Dozens of foxholes and trench lines lace through a sparsely wooded area on the other, providing concealment for gunmen or bombers. Iraqi troops apparently dug out the positions during the war and never filled them in. An American military meals-ready-to-eat packet lay gathering dust in one hole. Tall reeds and a prominent ditch on the other side of the road offered more hiding places.
U.S. soldiers were setting the brush and reeds on fire late yesterday in an attempt to deter more assaults.
Diaz and other soldiers said his unit alone had been attacked at least four times previously in the area, called Hai Tunis, in recent weeks, though no one else had been killed. The area is home to many former Baath Party members who are loyal to deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Diaz and other soldiers said.
Soldiers say they encounter simmering animosity in the area, and elusive gunmen strike at American troops at will and disappear into the surrounding neighborhoods.
"It's like this every time we go out," Diaz said. "Every time we go out and a rock hits a Humvee, we just sit there and wait, expecting to hear the bomb go off next."
"We've done several raids since we've been here," said Sgt. 1st Class Ronald Grantham, 36, of Tampa, Fla. "But we've come up empty on every one of them. I don't know where they're getting their intel from. But I'd like to know who it is, so I could go slap them."
Gen. John Abizaid, who recently took over U.S. Central Command, which is in charge of military operations in Iraq, announced plans while on a visit to Iraq to create a 7,000-member Iraqi paramilitary force to work with U.S. soldiers. The force would consist of eight battalions, with about 850 men each.
U.S. troops will train the new force, which is expected to be ready within about 45 days. U.S. officials hope the force will lessen attacks on U.S. troops.
Separately, U.S. military officials in Iraq recently announced plans to create a new Iraqi Army, which eventually will number about 40,000 men.
In Najaf, protests continued yesterday over accusations that U.S. Marines surrounded a Shiite cleric's house Saturday after he gave a speech denouncing Iraq's new Governing Council and calling for an Islamic army to be created to resist the council and U.S. and coalition forces.
U.S. officials deny surrounding the house. A spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority, who asked not to be named, called it "absolute nonsense." But a spokesman for Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr told Knight Ridder yesterday that the cleric's followers demand a high-profile public apology from coalition officials and insist that U.S. Marines leave Najaf.