Iraqi police and U.S. forces have captured two militants suspected of involvement in the abduction of three U.S. soldiers south of Baghdad earlier this year, the U.S. military said on Thursday.
The soldiers went missing after their patrol was ambushed on May 12 in Mahmudiya in the "Triangle of Death," an insurgent stronghold south of Baghdad. The body of one of them was pulled from the Euphrates River near Baghdad later in the same month.
Their abduction triggered a massive manhunt in palm groves south of Baghdad in the middle of the deadliest three-month period of the war for U.S. troops. Iraq has since become far quieter, but the incident remains a touchstone for U.S. forces.
The U.S. military said in a statement it caught the two suspects believed to have ties with al-Qaida on Monday and Tuesday in Ramadi in the western province of Anbar.
One of the men was believed to have "facilitated the kidnapping and is reported to have used his residence to aid in the hiding and transport of the captured soldiers," it said.
Al-Qaida had claimed responsibility for the attack, in which four other U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi translator were killed, but offered no proof that it held the missing soldiers.
The U.S. military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, said in May he believed at least two of the missing soldiers were still alive. The military said in it had detained nine people suspected of involvement during a raid on a building in Amiriya, a Sunni Arab stronghold west of Baghdad.
Anbar, where the two suspected militants were detained, was known as a hotbed for al-Qaida in Iraq. U.S. officials say the radical Sunni Arab fighters have been largely pushed out of the province by local Sunni tribes who turned against them.
U.S. says 11 Mahdi Army militants killed
In a separate operation, the U.S. military said it had killed 11 Shiite militants in the city of Kut southeast of Baghdad. It said the operation targeted "special groups," a term it uses to describe rogue members of the Shiite Mahdi Army militia who it says receive weapons from Iran.
"When coalition forces approached the target area they were engaged by terrorists with direct enemy fire from assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades," the military said.
"Responding in self-defense, coalition forces returned fire, and called for supporting aircraft to engage. The ground force assessed that approximately 11 terrorists were killed during the engagement," it added in a statement.
The Mahdi Army is loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who ordered his followers to observe a ceasefire in August. U.S. forces say that truce has contributed to a decline in violence, but some Mehdi units have refused to halt attacks.