BAGHDAD (AFP) – Thousands of US troops swept through villages and orchards south of Baghdad on Monday searching for signs of three missing comrades a day after Al-Qaeda claimed to have seized them.
The three soldiers went missing early Saturday after gunmen ambushed their patrol, killing four soldiers and an Iraqi army interpreter travelling with them south of Mahmudiyah, 30 kilometres (20 miles) south of Baghdad.
The search for the remaining soldiers intensified on Sunday as 4,000 troops combed the orchards and canals of the insurgent stronghold, manning checkpoints on main roads as surveillance drones buzzed overhead.
“It’s still ongoing. We’re letting the search continue,” said US spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Chris Garver. “We’re still using all our assets, to include satellites and national intelligence assets.”
Local officials said security measures in the city of Mahmudiyah itself were largely unchanged, with the manhunt focusing on smaller outlying villages considered fiercely loyal to Al-Qaeda.
“Search operations in Yusifiyah and the villages of Al-Qaraghuli, Al-Zuwaid and Al-Janabat west of Mahmudiyah are still ongoing,” said Mahmudiyah mayor Moad al-Amiri.
“US and Iraqi forces are cordoning off the farmsteads and orchards in all these areas,” Amiri said.
An Al-Qaeda-led insurgent group boasted on Sunday in an Internet message that its fighters had attacked “a crusader patrol in the Mahmudiyah area … leading to the killing and capture of a number of them.”
The group offered no proof of its claim, but promised more details to come.
Iraq’s deputy prime minister Barham Saleh said his country’s forces had joined in the search effort, but that he could not “definitively” confirm the claim that Al-Qaeda was holding the missing soldiers.
But “indications are that Al-Qaeda and other organisations are responsible for this attack,” he told CNN on Sunday during a visit to Washington.
While US forces in Baghdad and west and central Iraq come under attack daily from roadside bombs, snipers and guerrilla fighters, it is rare for insurgents to succeed in capturing American personnel.
Nevertheless, Al-Qaeda in Iraq — a Sunni group that has posted Internet videos of slain American and Iraqi hostages — has said that capturing US service members is a priority.
In June 2006 Al-Qaeda posted a statement on the Internet claiming that its alleged leader — known under the nom de guerre “Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Muhajer” — had ordered the killing of two captured American soldiers.
The group had seized the soldiers at an insurgent-run checkpoint outside Yusufiyah, near the area where Saturday’s ambush took place, a belt of insurgent activity often referred to as the “Triangle of Death.”
The bodies of the two soldiers were later found outside a power station south of Baghdad, mutilated beyond recognition and bearing signs of brutal torture, according to the Iraqi defence ministry.
Elsewhere in Iraq on Monday, gunmen ambushed an Iraqi police patrol in a province to the northeast of Baghdad, killing three policemen, a local hospital official said.
The attack took place west of Baquba, in a region which has seen fierce fighting in recent months between US forces, Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias.
South of Baghdad, police found the body of a woman who had been shot dead.