Militants hold troops, U.S. says

3 Americans have been missing since ambush Saturday

May 15, 2007|By Tina Susman | Tina Susman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Baghdad -- The United States acknowledged for the first time yesterday that three missing American soldiers probably are being held by militants linked to al-Qaida, and announced the deaths of six more U.S. troops.

Southwest of Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi forces sealed off villages as they continued searching for the three soldiers missing since a Saturday ambush that killed four U.S. troops and an Iraqi soldier who was a translator.

The Islamic State of Iraq, an insurgent group linked to al-Qaida that claimed responsibility for the attack, issued a statement on a Web site yesterday warning searchers to call off their hunt.

"Your soldiers are in our hands. If you want their safety, do not look for them," the message said.

The group did not provide proof that it was holding the men, whose identities have not been released, but the U.S. military spokesman, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, conceded that the group probably has the soldiers.

"At this time, we believe they were abducted by terrorists belonging to al-Qaida or an affiliated group, and this assessment is based on highly credible intelligence information," he said.

Caldwell said the soldiers had been out before dawn monitoring a road between the cities of Mahmoudiya and Yousifiya, watching for insurgents who often plant roadside bombs in the area. The cities are located in a region known as the Triangle of Death because of the high frequency of attacks by Sunni Arab insurgents.

In June, two U.S. troops were taken captive in the region and killed, an attack claimed by a group loyal to al-Qaida.

An Iraqi army official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the search for the missing soldiers was focused on Harghawiya, which is inhabited mainly by Sunni Arab tribes. Witnesses said U.S. helicopters had been picking people up and taking them to nearby bases for questioning.

At least 50 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq this month, according to military statements and, which monitors war-related deaths. Six deaths were reported yesterday, five of them in combat.

They included two soldiers shot to death while on a foot patrol in southeastern Baghdad and another killed by a roadside bomb in north Baghdad. An airman was killed by a bomb in northern Baghdad, and a Marine was killed in Anbar province, west of Baghdad. Another soldier died of causes not related to combat.

In Baghdad yesterday, two car bombs exploded in busy areas of the city, killing as many as eight people. Three more people were killed in separate mortar attacks in southern Baghdad. Two Iraqi soldiers were killed when a suicide bomber attacked a military checkpoint in western Baghdad's Mansour neighborhood.

A Danish soldier was killed in southern Iraq during a battle in which insurgents trapped several troops, who were rescued by British soldiers.

Seven Danish soldiers have been killed in Iraq. Denmark is scheduled to begin withdrawing its 430 troops, who operate under British command in southern Iraq, in August.

The clash began when a roadside bomb blew up next to a patrol as it passed through Hartha, north of Basra. Gunmen opened fire on the soldiers, sparking a battle during which cross-fire killed two young men, witnesses said.

The soldiers sought shelter in a nearby building, which gunmen surrounded, the British military said. British troops stormed the house and rescued the Danish troops, the military said.

Witnesses said they saw three Danish troops taken captive, but the British military denied that. Six Danish soldiers were wounded in the attack, and one of them later died, the statement said.

Police reported finding the bodies of 18 people, apparent victims of sectarian death squads, in the capital.

Tina Susman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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