Massive Search Continues For U.S. Troops

A US soldier gestures at the site of a car bomb in the Karrada district near Baghdad city center 14 May 2007. Three people were killed and another six wounded in the attack. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
Getty Images/Ahmad Al-Rubaye
U.S. and Iraqi forces exchanged fire with suspected Sunni insurgents on Monday, killing two and wounding four of them during a massive search for three missing American soldiers in a volatile area south of Baghdad, the Iraqi army said.

An al Qaeda front group, the Islamic State in Iraq, claimed Sunday that it had captured U.S soldiers in a deadly attack on a U.S. convoy the day before in Sunni area south of Baghdad that is known as the "triangle of death" — a longtime al Qaeda stronghold.

Meanwhile, 4,000 U.S. troops backed by aircraft, intelligence units and Iraqi forces were scouring the farming area around Mahmoudiya and the nearby town of Youssifiyah for the third day, as the military promised to make every effort available to find the missing soldiers.

Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said the military could not verify the claim by the Islamic State of Iraq but "it would not surprise me if ... al Qaeda in Iraq is involved in this because there are similarities to what they've done before."

He pointed out that the terror network also had claimed responsibility for killing two U.S. soldiers whose mutilated bodies were found after they went missing in the same area last year.

Referring to the two soldiers killed last year, former Marines Capt. Nathaniel Fick told CBS' The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith that a similar situation for the three soldiers currently missing is "unfortunately terribly likely."

Fick added that soldiers in Iraq are rendered "culturally blind" by the shifting alliances among Iraq's insurgent groups. "It's a three-dimensional battlefield and it's the proverbial hall of mirrors," Fick said.

"It's hard to tell who's your ally," he said.

The Islamic State in Iraq offered no proof for its claim on Internet that it was behind the attack Saturday in Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of Baghdad, that also killed four U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi translator.

The group said on its Web site that more details would be released soon, CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann reports.

If the claim proves true, it would mark one of the most brazen attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq, a coalition of eight insurgent groups, including al Qaeda in Iraq.

Late last month, the group named a 10-member "Cabinet" complete with a "war minister," an apparent attempt to present the Sunni coalition as an alternative to the U.S.-backed, Shiite-led administration of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

On Sunday, U.S. troops surrounded Youssifiyah and told residents over loudspeakers to stay inside, residents said. They then methodically searched the houses, focusing on possible secret chambers under the floors where the soldiers might be hidden, residents said.

The soldiers marked each searched house with a white piece of cloth.

Soldiers also searched cars entering and leaving the town, writing "searched" on the side of each vehicle they had inspected. Several people were arrested, witnesses said.

Early Monday morning, U.S. and Iraqi forces exchanged fire with gunmen near Youssifiyah during the house-to-house search operation for the missing American soldiers, killing two suspected insurgents and injuring four others, a top Iraqi army officer in the area said.

He said the fighting began at about 3:30 a.m. and lasted for about 30 minutes. The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to security concerns, said the coalition's search operation in the region has detained more than 100 suspects.

The U.S. military did not immediate comment on the report.

In Mahmoudiyah, residents complained on Monday that coalition forces had searched through their homes, and AP Television News footage showed on one apartment that appeared to have been ransacked in the search.

One resident also said three residents in the area, including two guards at a local mosque, had been detained by coalition forces, but that could not be immediately confirmed.

In Other Developments:

  • Two U.S. soldiers on a foot patrol southeast of Baghdad were killed Monday when they came under attack from gunfire, the military said in a statement. Another U.S. soldier died of non-battle-related causes at about 5 a.m. Monday, the military said, providing no other details. The deaths raised to at least 3,396 the members of the U.S. military who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
  • The United States and Iran said Sunday they will hold upcoming talks in Baghdad about improving Iraq's security — a historic political turnabout that comes amid a last-ditch U.S. military and diplomatic push to stabilize the country.
  • Iraqi lawmakers say Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki plans to give Sunnis more say in security operations in their areas. The deal would stave off a threatened Sunni walkout that could have toppled the al-Maliki's embattled government. Lawmakers describe the agreement as an understanding and not a formal pact; similar arrangements have broken down in the past. The deal could help assuage Sunni complaints that security forces dominated by Shiites unfairly target Sunni areas but have not cracked down on Shiite militias linked to influential lawmakers.
  • Gunmen in two cars opened fire on a police checkpoint in the Diyala capital of Baqouba, killing three policemen and two civilians, police said. Two policemen and four civilians were wounded in the 9:30 a.m. attack, which ended when the assailants fled the scene, police said.
  • On Sunday, five civilians were killed execution style on the streets of Baquoba by gunmen who appeared to be accusing them of collaborating with the U.S.-led coalition. The U.S. military has noted an uptick in violence in the volatile region and sent 3,000 additional forces to try to tame the violence.
  • Three mortar rounds hit an outdoor market in Zafaraniyah, a Shiite section of southeast Baghdad, killing three civilians and wounding nine.
  • A car bomb exploded in a parking lot in the mainly Shiite neighborhood of Karradah in central Baghdad, killing three people and wounding two.
  • A parked car bomb exploded near a police patrol in Palestine Street, a commercial area in eastern Baghdad, killing two policemen and a civilian, and wounding three policemen and four civilians.
  • In Suwayrah, 25 miles south of the capital, police dragged two unidentified, bullet-riddled bodies of a man and a women in their 40s from the Tigris River. Like many other victims of such killings in Iraq, they were handcuffed with their legs tied together.
  • At 11:30 p.m. Sunday, gunmen apparently disguised as Iraqi soldiers broke into the house of a Sunni family at the Shiite-dominated al-Wihda district, 20 miles south of Baghdad, killing two men and wounding four others, included a 6-year-old child.