Attacks kill 3 U.S. soldiers in Iraq

Deaths occurred Friday but weren't disclosed by military until yesterday

January 04, 2004|By Laura King | Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - A mortar attack on a sprawling U.S. Army base in central Iraq and a roadside bomb on a dangerous thoroughfare outside the capital killed three American soldiers, the military said yesterday.

All three deaths occurred Friday - the same day another U.S. soldier died when an American observation helicopter was downed by insurgents west of Baghdad - but they were not immediately disclosed by the Army.

Two of the soldiers were killed when an "improvised explosive device" detonated near their vehicle as their patrol passed by, a military spokeswoman said. The bomb was laid alongside a roadway just south of the Iraqi capital, in the same general area that had come under heavy American bombardment overnight.

A third soldier was reported wounded in the explosion. The names of the soldiers were withheld yesterday pending notification of next of kin.

Crude but powerful homemade bombs have become the preferred method for insurgents to hurt the vastly more powerful U.S. forces without engaging them directly. In recent months, roadside bombs have been accounting for a large proportion of American military casualties.

U.S. soldiers have learned to be alert for explosives concealed in everything from concrete blocks to abandoned pipes to cardboard boxes, but it has proved impossible for patrols to spot every object that could represent a potential hazard.

The mortar attack, which left one soldier dead and two others wounded, occurred late Friday at one of the largest American bases in Iraq, near the town of Balad, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, the capital.

Insurgents launch frequent nighttime mortar attacks on U.S. bases, particularly those to the north and west of the capital, but a fatal strike on the heavily fortified American encampments is a rarity. The attackers are generally unable to aim at any particular target within a base and simply lob shells over the perimeter fences in hopes of scoring a hit.

One shell exploded near a trailer used as a bedroom by soldiers, and one soldier standing in its doorway was killed, said Sgt. Robert Cargie, a spokesman for the 4th Infantry Division. Two other soldiers were struck by shrapnel and taken to a combat support hospital, Cargie said.

After the attack, soldiers rushed out to search for the assailants, using a helicopter and setting up checkpoints in the area. Six people were detained for questioning, a military spokesman said.

With the three latest deaths, the number of American soldiers killed in action since the start of the war in Iraq stands at 331.

Confronted with a stubborn insurgency that has persisted despite the capture last month of Saddam Hussein, U.S. forces are fighting back with tactics that include wide-ranging raids, which have netted hundreds of suspected loyalists of the former regime. Interrogation of these suspects in turn has led to the seizure of dozens of weapons caches.

Although U.S. commanders acknowledge that heavy weapons are not always effective against lightly armed insurgents who move from one area to another, U.S. forces have been carrying out an intermittent campaign of bombardment on the southern outskirts of the capital during the past two weeks.

Heavy explosions, artillery and machine-gun fire echoed late into the night Friday, following a pattern similar to U.S. strikes waged during the last half of December. The military did not disclose the specific targets of the latest bombardment but has said that the areas being hit were used by insurgents to launch rocket and mortar attacks.

The Sunni Muslim and tribal-dominated southern edge of Baghdad, a rural area dotted with date-palm plantations, is considered a stronghold of the insurgency and known to be the staging ground for a variety of hit-and-run-style attacks against American forces, U.S. commanders say.

Northwest of Baghdad, hundreds of residents protested yesterday in Hadithah, saying U.S. soldiers had raided the town overnight. A cameraman for Associated Press Television News filmed four shroud-covered bodies and one person in a hospital who was injured by a gunshot.

Residents said the four people were killed in the U.S. raid, but there was no way to immediately verify the claim. The military had no immediate comment.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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