An Iraqi soldier sprayed gunfire at American troops guarding one of their commanders as he visited an Iraqi military base on Tuesday and killed two of them, the first U.S. servicemen to die since President Barack Obama declared an official end to combat operations in the country last week.
Nine other Americans were wounded. The soldiers were part of a security element for a U.S. commander who was meeting with members of Iraqi security forces at the compound in Salah ah-Din, which is near the city of Tuz, about 130 miles north of Baghdad.
The assailant opened fire after an argument and was killed in the shootout that followed, said the city's police chief, Col. Hussein Rashid. He did not provide details on the nature of the argument.
Army Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo, the commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, called it "an isolated incident" and added that this is "certainly not reflective of the Iraqi Security Forces in Salah ad-Din."
Cucolo stressed during the Sept. 1 ceremony marking the formal change in the American mission that his soldiers know the fight is not over. "There are groups here that still want to hurt us," he said last week.
These were the first U.S. military deaths in Iraq since Obama declared an official end to the combat mission on Aug. 31 as part of his plan for withdrawing all American forces by the end of 2011. Three U.S. military personnel were killed in August.
The last official combat brigade left the country Aug. 19, but about 50,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq. They are tasked with training Iraqi security forces, providing security for some State Department missions and assisting the Iraqi forces in hunting down insurgent groups. But they can be drawn into combat missions if Iraqi forces request their help.
There are also just under 5,000 special forces troops who assist in training and will team up with Iraqi troops on counterterror raids.
U.S. military officials have said Iranian-backed militias are stepping up their attacks against targets in Baghdad in an attempt to make it look like they are driving the Americans out.
While the focus is supposed to be on training, Vice President Joe Biden vowed last week during a trip to Baghdad that the remaining American troops are "as combat ready, if need be, as any in our military."
On Sunday, American troops found themselves in combat helping to defend an Iraqi military headquarters in Baghdad from heavily armed militants.
In a statement posted on a militant website, the Islamic State of Iraq took responsibility for the hour-long assault Sunday on the headquarters of the Iraqi Army's 11th Division. It was the second assault on the complex in less than a month and showed the challenges Iraqi security forces are facing after the U.S. change of mission.
The deaths Tuesday raise to at least 4,418 the number of U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq since the war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.