BAGHDAD,(AP)- Seven U.S. Marines were killed in two separate attacks west of Baghdad, where American forces are trying to seal a major infiltration route for foreign fighters, the military said. Their deaths pushed the U.S.military death toll in Iraq past 1,800.
At least 25 American service members have been killed in Iraq since July 24, all but two in combat. The Iraqi Defense Ministry said on Tuesday that since the beginning of April, more than 2,700 Iraqis, about half of them civilians, had been killed in insurgency-related incidents.
Six of the U.S. Marines were killed on Monday in Haditha, 220 kilometers (140 miles) northwest of Baghdad. The seventh Marine died on Monday in a suicide car bombing in Hit, 80 kilometers (50 miles) southeast of Haditha.
Two strong explosions were heard about 6:30 a.m. Wednesday in Parwana, a small town just north of Haditha, residents said by telephone. The cause of the blasts could not be determined because U.S. troops have surrounded the area. Attack helicopters and warplanes could be heard overhead.
The U.S. command said the six Marines were "engaged by terrorists and killed by small-arms fire" in Haditha, a town on the Euphrates River valley, which U.S. and Iraqi officials have identified as a major route for foreign fighters slipping into Iraq.
"Five Marines were killed in the initial attack," the statement said. "One was unaccounted for and his body later found and safely recovered a few kilometers away. The circumstances of the incident are under investigation."
The six were Marine reservists from Ohio who were on sniper duty in Iraq, a military spokesman in Cleveland said Tuesday.
Following the attack, residents of Haditha said several masked gunmen identifying themselves as the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, a major Sunni Arab insurgent group, appeared in the public market carrying helmets, flak jackets and automatic rifles they said belonged to U.S. troops. They distributed flyers claiming to have killed 10 American service members.
"They were on a mountain near the town so we went up, surrounded them and asked them to surrender," the statement said. "They did not surrender so we killed them."
A similar claim in the name of Ansar al-Sunnah was posted on an Islamic Web site.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy said American freelance journalist Steven Vincent had been found dead in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. Police said he had been shot multiple times after he and his Iraqi translator were abducted at gunpoint hours earlier.
"I can confirm to you that officials in Basra have recovered the body of journalist Steven Vincent," said embassy spokesman Pete Mitchell. "The U.S. Embassy is working with British military and local Iraqi officials in Basra to determine who is responsible for the death of this journalist."
The embassy did not give the cause of death. However, Iraqi police in Basra said Vincent was abducted along with his female translator at gunpoint Tuesday evening. The translator, Nour Weidi, was seriously wounded.
Vincent and the translator were taken by five gunmen in a police car as they left a currency exchange shop, police Lt. Col. Karim al-Zaidi said.
Vincent”s body was discovered on the side of the highway south of Basra later. He had been shot in the head and multiple times on his body, al-Zaidi said. Police said Vincent, a writer who had been living in New York, had been staying in Basra for several months working on a book.
In an op-ed piece published July 31 in The New York Times, Vincent wrote that Basra”s police force had been heavily infiltrated by members of Shiite political groups, including those loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
In Baghdad, a roadside bomb exploded at the entrance to a highway tunnel in central Baghdad as a U.S. military convoy was passing, damaging two Humvees. At least 29 Iraqis were wounded, officials said. But there was no report of any American casualties.
At least 1,801 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. At least 1,382 died as a result of hostile action. The figures include five military civilians.
The toll among Iraqis, however, has been much higher. On Tuesday, the Defense Ministry said that since April 1, a total of 2,709 Iraqis have died in violent attacks, including 1,413 civilians. The rest were soldiers, police and insurgents.
The death toll for July was 656, the ministry said. That was the second deadliest month since the Shiite-dominated government was installed, surpassed only by May”s figure of 967 deaths.
However, records-keeping in Iraq is irregular, especially in areas where the insurgents are strong, and the real figure is probably higher.
Violence has accelerated as the Iraqis struggle to finish a new constitution, which the United States sees as crucial toward maintaining political momentum and undermining the insurgency.
An Iraqi committee is racing to finish the charter in time for an 15 August deadline for parliamentary approval. After that, voters will decide whether to ratify the document in a referendum in mid-October, followed by a new election in December.
If all goes well, the United States and its partners hope to start bringing their troops home next year. On Tuesday, a joint commission formed to coordinate the handover of cities to Iraqi security forces held its first meeting.
Progress on the constitution has been slowed, however, due to broad differences on the role of Islam, federalism and the distribution of national wealth. Iraqi women activists fear designating Islam as the main source of legislation will curb their rights.
On Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad urged the framers to protect women”s rights as a "fundamental requirement for Iraq”s progress."
"My focus is to help get a constitution that does this," Khalilzad told reporters. "Of course, the Iraqis will decide but we will help in any way that we can." Khalilzad said his government would encourage Iraqi politicians to exclude any constitutional articles that discriminate or limit opportunities for any Iraqi citizens.
In other developments Tuesday, a suicide car bomber struck a police checkpoint in Mosul, killing four people, three of them police, Brig. Gen. Wathiq Mohammed said. Also, an explosion damaged a pipeline used for shipping fuel to a Baghdad power station, raising fears of further power cutbacks in the capital. Finally U.S. troops clashed with insurgents in Ramadi, 110 kilometers (70 miles) west of Baghdad. There were no reports of U.S. casualties.