Five killed in ambush in Iraq

U.S. patrol attacked in `Triangle of Death'

3 members missing

May 13, 2007|By Tina Susman | Tina Susman,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD -- A pre-dawn ambush killed five members of a U.S. military patrol and left three others missing yesterday in an insurgent stronghold dubbed the "Triangle of Death" where two American soldiers were taken captive and slain last year.

U.S. and Iraqi troops scoured date palm orchards, fields of high reeds and irrigation ditches along the Euphrates River southwest of Baghdad in search of the missing. Helicopters and airplanes scanned the terrain from the air, and the military established checkpoints throughout the agricultural region in case their captors tried to smuggle them out of the area.

Abductions of U.S. troops are rare in Iraq. In addition to the two captives killed last year, Staff Sgt. Keith M. Maupin of Batavia, Ohio, was seized in April 2004 in Baghdad. He has not been found. Insurgents claimed to have killed him, but the Army said a video purporting to offer proof of his death was inconclusive.

According to a statement from Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, a military spokesman, seven U.S. soldiers and their Iraqi interpreter came under attack at 4:44 a.m. about 12 miles west of Mahmoudiya. Mahmoudiya is about 20 miles southwest of Baghdad.

Few details of the ambush were provided, but the brief description offered by Caldwell was chilling.

At the moment of attack, a nearby military unit heard loud explosions. It tried to contact the patrol but could not. Within 15 minutes, an aerial drone spotted flaming wreckage at the spot where the patrol had been. The Army dispatched a quick reaction force to the scene, where it found five bodies.

The other three members of the unit were gone.

The military did not identify the members of the patrol.

"Make no mistake: We will never stop looking for our soldiers until their status is definitely determined," Caldwell said.

In June 2006, insurgents attacked a U.S. checkpoint in the same area, killing one soldier and taking two captive. Their bodies were found three days later, mutilated and booby-trapped with explosives. An insurgent group claiming loyalty to al-Qaida claimed responsibility.

During the regime of Saddam Hussein, high-ranking members of his ruling Baath Party were rewarded with plots of land in the fertile district around Mahmoudiya and the nearby towns of Latifiya and Yousifiya. After the U.S. invasion of March 2003, it developed into a hotbed of Sunni Muslim insurgency and was dubbed the "Triangle of Death" because of the frequency of attacks on American forces there.

Opposition to the U.S. presence grew after five American soldiers were charged in connection with the March 2006 rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl in Mahmoudiya. The girl's family was also killed. One soldier was sentenced to 100 years in prison, and another received a 90-year sentence for the crime. Three others have yet to be tried.

The latest deaths, along with a separate one reported by the U.S. military, brought to at least 3,393 the number of U.S. forces killed in Iraq, according to icasualties.org, which tracks war-related deaths and injuries.

A military statement said that a soldier died in Iskandariya, 25 miles south of Baghdad, after being shot Friday.

Last week, Maj. Gen. Rich Lynch of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, the commander of troops along Baghdad's southern belt, which includes the "Triangle of Death," said al-Qaida was the biggest threat in the area.

"I'm worried about al-Qaida, and as I talk to people inside the battle space, they're all worried about al-Qaida, too," Lynch, said referring to his area of command.

In comments to foreign journalists, Lynch also sharply criticized the Iraqi government, echoing another U.S. general's sentiment that lawmakers in Baghdad are impeding the country's ability to emerge from its sectarian war.

Lynch predicted that by fall, security would be improving in his area of command, which includes four provinces south of Baghdad, but warned that this improvement could have limited influence without political progress.

"I don't see that there is going to be significant progress on the government side between now and the fall," Lynch said. He noted in particular the failure of the government to organize provincial elections, which are seen as crucial to curbing Sunni resentment in areas ruled by Shiites.

Tina Susman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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