BAGHDAD – A militant group tied to al-Qaida claimed Sunday to be holding three American soldiers missing since an ambush that left four U.S. troops and an Iraqi interpreter dead.
The statement from the Islamic State of Iraq came as thousands of U.S. and Iraqi security forces combed the “triangle of death,” an area southwest of Baghdad that is a stronghold of Sunni Muslim insurgents.
Three U.S. soldiers disappeared after the Saturday ambush about 12 miles from Mahmoudiya. The military did not identify the U.S. troops, and did not reveal their combat unit, but some new details emerged.
At least one victim suffered gunshot wounds, though it was unclear if he was shot before or after blasts enveloped the soldiers’ two vehicles in flames, said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a military spokesman.
The Army’s Quick Reaction Force, deployed about 15 minutes after the 4:44 a.m. attack, had to evade a roadside bomb in its path as it headed toward the scene in the pre-dawn darkness, Garver said. The force arrived about 40 minutes later.
“This is not like responding to a two-alarm fire on Sunset Boulevard,” Garver said. “They can’t just drive up. You have to be wary along the way.”
There was no way to verify the militant group’s claim. The Islamic State of Iraq, a coalition of Sunni groups loyal to al-Qaida, offered no photographic evidence to back up its claim, which appeared on the group’s Web site.
The area of the attack is a stronghold of anti-American insurgents. Two U.S. soldiers were captured there and slain last year. Another group loyal to al-Qaida claimed to have captured and slain the men.
The Army came under criticism after the incident for having allowed the unit to operate in a dangerous area without helicopter support.
In the latest incident, there were two vehicles in the patrol, but it was unclear what the troops were doing when they came under attack. One military official said it appeared the soldiers had been stationary, indicating they may have been guarding a checkpoint.
About 4,000 troops backed by helicopters and spy planes searched the region, following up on tips from local residents, Garver said.
Across Iraq, bombs, mortars and gunfire killed more than 50 people Sunday, including 16 in a Baghdad market that has been a frequent target of bombings and other attacks.
Two other soldiers died in bomb blasts, one near Haditha, in al-Anbar province, and another in Salahuddin province, north of Baghdad, the U.S. military said.
The deaths brought to 3,396 the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq since the U.S. invasion of March 2003, according to icasualties.org, a Web site that monitors war-related deaths and injuries.
In northern Iraq, officials blamed al-Qaida for a bomb that tore through a street in downtown Makhmoor, about 150 miles from Baghdad. At least 32 people died and 115 were injured.
In the capital, residents of the Shiite Muslim district of Sadriya were reeling after a blast killed 16 people, the third major bombing since February.
Sadriya abuts Fadhil, a Sunni Muslim neighborhood where U.S. forces often clash with suspected insurgents. Survivors complained that a U.S.-Iraqi security plan launched in mid-February, aimed at taming sectarian violence, has failed to protect Sadriya.
“This whole security plan is a joke,” said Jaffar Mousa, who was wounded by flying glass.
Police had erected checkpoints at the entrance to the market because of previous attacks, but the bomber managed to park a car laden with explosives close enough to cause massive casualties when it blew up at 2:45 p.m.
Charred corpses lay on the streets, and the injured were bundled onto wooden carts and wheeled from the scene.
“There was blood pooling on the street and pieces of flesh were everywhere,” said Mousa, adding that it took rescue vehicles a long time to reach the scene because they could not drive through volatile Fadhil.
The Makhmoor attack marked the second time in four days that the relatively placid area around the Kurdistan region had been rocked by violence. Wednesday, at least 19 people died when a suicide bomber detonated his vehicle in the Kurdistan city of Irbil.