U.S. aircraft dropped leaflets seeking information about three U.S. soldiers feared captured by al Qaeda as American and Iraqi troops intensified the search Tuesday despite a warning from the terror group that the hunt will endanger the captives' lives.
The U.S. command said the searchers were trying to isolate areas where they suspect the captives may have been taken after the pre-dawn ambush Saturday in which four American troops and an Iraq soldier were killed.
"The captors don't have freedom of movement," said Maj. Kenny Mintz of San Diego, Calif. "If they have the soldiers, they can't move them from where they are. We're doing a deliberate search of the areas."
On Monday, an al Qaeda front group — the Islamic State of Iraq — warned the Americans in a Web statement to call off the hunt "if you want their safety."
The warning could indicate that the presence of about 4,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops in the thinly populated farming area 20 miles south of Baghdad is making it difficult for the captors to move the Americans to a secure location.
In a statement Tuesday, the U.S. command said American soldiers have questioned more than 450 people and detained at least 11 since the search began last weekend.
A later statement said that in addition to the leaflets, trucks with loudspeakers were roaming the area urging people to come forward with any information. No details of the leaflets or their precise message were released.
All seven of the dead and missing soldiers were assigned to Company D, 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, which is part of the 10th Mountain Division from Fort Drum, N.Y., reports CBS News correspondent Sharon Alfonsi. The echo of that loss, and so many others, can be felt around Fort Drum. More than 80 soldiers from that base alone have been killed since the start of the war.
"I lost two good friends over there," said Fort Drum soldier David Potter.
In other developments:
At the time of the attack, the soldiers were in two vehicles "at a stationary observation post trying to interdict terrorists who place roadside bombs," a U.S. spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said.
"There were other observation posts that were trying to do this in the area. They were not moving in a convoy. The entire unit was out operating in this same area," Garver added.
Al Qaeda and other insurgent groups have been active for years in the string of towns and villages south of the capital. The area is known as the "triangle of death" because of frequent attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces as well as Shiite civilians traveling to shrine cities in the south.
Last June, al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the deaths of two U.S. soldiers whose mutilated bodies were later found in the same area.
The soldiers attacked last Saturday were assigned to a small patrol base set up as part of the new U.S. strategy to move troops from large, heavily defended garrisons to live and work among the people.
Critics of the strategy had warned that such small outposts are more vulnerable to attack. Last month, nine American soldiers were killed when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives-laden vehicle near a small patrol base northeast of Baghdad.
Last week, an embedded reporter for the Stars and Stripes newspaper, who visited the patrol base south of Baghdad, said the soldiers were housed in a rural home with protective razor wire "not far from the front door."
"Soon after the base was established, insurgents began testing their new neighbors," the Stars and Stripes said. "In the first months, one convoy came across seven roadside bombs piled outside the front gates. More recently, U.S. officials had gotten reports that a force of more than two dozen insurgents planned to storm the walls" although the attack never materialized.
U.S. officials have not officially released names of the dead and missing soldiers. But relatives said the dead include Sgt. 1st Class James David Connell Jr., 40, of Lake City, Tennessee and 19-year-old Pfc. Daniel Courneya, of Vermontville, Michigan.
"I'm proud of my dad, because he didn't really fight for himself, he fought for the country," Connell's teenage daughter, Courtney, told Knoxville's WATE-TV.
In Michigan, students at Maple Valley High School created a memorial for Courneya, who graduated in 2005 and was well-known in the small community southwest of Lansing. He was a member of the school's track and soccer teams and played clarinet in the band.
"It's a tribute of photos, posters, plaques and a picture of him in his uniform," school official Kelly Zank told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Courneya's mother, Wendy Thompson, said her husband, Army Spc. David Thompson, was in Iraq and returning home after learning of his stepson's death.
Also Tuesday, at least 51 people were killed or found dead across the country. They included a total of 10 people who died in two markets in a mostly Shiite area of eastern Baghdad.
Under a new government policy limiting media coverage of such tragedies, Iraqi police prevented news photographers and cameramen from filming the scene.
The government said the order, announced over the weekend, is aimed at preventing journalists from inadvertently tampering with evidence, protecting the privacy of the wounded and keeping insurgents and militias from keeping track of their success rate.
The ban also prevents pictures which call into question U.S. and Iraqi claims of success in quelling violence in Baghdad.