BAGHDAD — Five U.S. soldiers were killed Monday afternoon in northern Iraq when explosives detonated near their vehicle, the second-deadliest attack on American soldiers this year.
The attack occurred in Mosul, a city that the Iraqi government has dubbed al Qaida in Iraq's last major stronghold, and the site of some of the biggest attacks in the country so far this year.
Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki last week announced a major offensive against Mosul, sending Iraqi troops and tanks to Iraq's third-largest city. The prime minister promised a "decisive" push through the northwest province.
The U.S. military said Iraqi forces would lead the offensive, which could be a major indicator of the Iraq's military ability to stand on its own.
Monday's attack and a surge in violence outside Baghdad confirmed a reversal of the downward trend in the U.S. death toll, which had fallen for five previous months. According to icasualties.org, a Web site that tracks casualties in Iraq, 36 soldiers have died so far this year compared with 23 in December. In all, 3,940 American troops have been killed in Iraq since the war began in March 2003.
The soldiers in Monday's attack were on a mounted patrol in the Sumer neighborhood, southeast of Mosul. After detonating the improvised explosives, which destroyed the U.S. military vehicle, insurgents fired at other soldiers on the patrol from a nearby mosque, according to a coalition forces statement issued in Iraq.
A fierce gunfight broke out as American and Iraqi troops secured the area, the U.S. military said. Iraqi forces then entered the mosque, but the insurgents already had fled.
The American military didn't release the names or unit of the soldiers who'd been killed in the attack, pending family notification.
Their deaths cap a violent week in Mosul, where some 20,000 tons of explosives detonated last week, leveling an apartment building reportedly used by the group al Qaida in Iraq. The blast is reported to have killed more than 40 people and injured 200. The next day, a suicide bomber killed the city's new police chief, who was visiting the blast site. Al Qaida in Iraq took responsibility for the attacks.
Also Monday, four police officers were reported killed.
Residents in Ninevah province, in which Mosul is located, say they're increasingly frustrated with the violence. The Iraqi government and U.S. military said the American troop buildup in Baghdad and the surrounding area had displaced members of al Qaida in Iraq, who moved toward Mosul, which is about 225 miles from Baghdad, and other locations.
Some Mosul residents apparently haven't uniformly rejected al Qaida in Iraq, as have Iraqis in other cities. Some Sunni Muslims are said to think that the group is their only protection against sectarian violence between themselves and the city's eclectic mix of Kurds, Turkmens, Armenians and Assyrians.
As al Qaida in Iraq fighters have moved out of Baghdad, the U.S. military this month began to pursue them, prompting the rise in attacks in outlying provinces. On Jan. 9, six American soldiers were killed in Diyala province when a booby-trapped house they were clearing detonated, the deadliest attack this year.
(Lannen reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Youssef reported from Washington.)