BAGHDAD — Fourteen American soldiers were killed in three deadly days in Iraq, the U.S. military said Sunday, including four in a single roadside bombing and one who was struck by a suicide bomber while on a foot patrol southwest of the capital.
The blast that killed the four soldiers occurred Sunday as the troops were conducting a cordon and search operation northwest of the Iraqi capital, according to a statement. Two other soldiers from Multi-National Division-Baghdad were killed and five were wounded along with an Iraqi interpreter in two separate roadside bombings on Sunday, the military said.
One soldier was killed Friday after the patrol approached two suspicious men for questioning near a mosque, and one of the suspects blew himself up, according to a statement. The military did not provide more details.
Seven others troops were killed in a series of attacks across Iraq on Saturday.
The deaths raised to at least 3,493 members of the U.S. military who have died since the war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Also Sunday, as U.S. jets roared overhead, Mahdi Army militiamen battled with Iraqi troops and local police searching for two militia leaders in the southern city of Diwaniyah. At least three people were killed and 24 wounded, official Iraqi sources reported.
The southern clashes came just hours after American helicopter gunships attacked targets in Mahdi Army-dominated Shiite east Baghdad, killing four suspected militants, the U.S. military reported, as the radical Shiite militia faced growing pressure to bow to central government authority.
In another of Iraq’s unending terror bombings, meanwhile, a car parked near a police station and an open-air market exploded Sunday in Balad Ruz, northeast of Baghdad, killing nine civilians and one policeman and wounding 25 other people, police said.
The latest round of bloodshed came as private talks were reported between al-Sadr’s Mahdi militia and Iraqi government officials to win the release of five Britons kidnapped last Tuesday from Baghdad’s Finance Ministry, an abduction believed carried out by the Shiite militia.
Recent American and Iraqi military operations in east Baghdad are believed aimed at finding and freeing those hostages.
London’s Sunday Times, quoting an unidentified senior Iraqi government official, said al-Sadr’s representatives were demanding an end to assassination attempts against militia leaders, an end to British army patrols in the southern Shiite city of Basra, and the release of nine Mahdi officials from British and U.S. custody.
Al-Sadr claims no responsibility
Al-Sadr’s office denies involvement in the kidnappings — of four security guards and a computer consultant. But the Times reported an al-Sadr official visited Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to tell him the men were “safe and sound” but would not be free until the demands were met. Al-Maliki’s office on Sunday denied a meeting took place.
The clashes in Diwaniyah erupted Saturday evening after Iraqi soldiers and police cordoned off a market in search of two senior Mahdi Army figures wanted by U.S.-led coalition forces in connection with sectarian killings.
Maj. Gen. Othman Ali, commander of the Iraq army’s 8th Division, said his forces captured one of the men, but he escaped when fellow militiamen came to his aid.
The fighting on the east side of the city, 80 miles south of Baghdad, resumed about 9 a.m. Sunday with the support of U.S. jet fighters and helicopter gunships skimming over Diwaniyah’s rooftops, police said.
Ali said his forces raided two locations in “fierce” fighting that lasted three hours. They didn’t find their target suspects, but did find weapons caches at the site, he said.
Police and medical sources said 20 wounded Iraqis, including two policemen, were brought to the local hospital from Sunday morning’s fighting. The clashes erupted anew around 1:30 p.m, and one soldier and two other people were killed, and three civilians wounded, an army officer said on condition of anonymity, since he was not authorized to speak with the media.
It could not immediately be determined how many of the reported casualties may have been Mahdi Army militiamen. The U.S. military had no immediate report on the action.
Still looking for key suspects
The Mahdi Army, under the stridently anti-American al-Sadr, has emerged as one of the strongest autonomous forces in U.S.-occupied Iraq, and has been implicated in the wave of sectarian killings — of Sunni Muslims by Shiites and Shiites by Sunni groups — that has bloodied Iraq.
American and Iraqi forces launched “Operation Black Eagle” about two months ago in Diwaniyah, in search of five wanted senior Mahdi Army figures. About 180 suspected members were rounded up, but none of the five, said Ali.
The two sides had agreed on a truce two weeks ago, an accord that broke down with this weekend’s clashes.
In the U.S. air attack late Saturday in east Baghdad, the U.S. command said an Apache helicopter team was alerted to men setting up multiple rocket firing positions aimed at the Green Zone, home to the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government offices.
Four men were killed and one vehicle and 10 rockets destroyed by the Apache fire, the military said, and six other suspects were captured by ground forces of the 82nd Airborne Division. State-run Iraqiya television said the attack occurred in Habibiyah, a Shiite area on the edge of the Mahdi Army’s Sadr City stronghold, five miles northeast of the Green Zone.
A recent increase in mortar and rocket attacks on the U.S.-controlled area has raised concern, especially since they are occurring during the U.S.-led crackdown in Baghdad.
In other violence Sunday:
- Gunmen at a fake checkpoint in Baqouba, 35 miles north of Baghdad, killed two passengers and wounded eight when they opened fire on minibuses that sought to flee from the highway trap.
- Police found eight bodies in an industrial area of the western city of Fallujah.
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