BAGHDAD, Iraq—A pre-dawn attack Saturday on seven American soldiers and their Iraqi translator in a Sunni Muslim insurgent stronghold south of Baghdad left five men dead and the other three missing, the U.S. military said in a statement.
The attack west of Mahmoudiya, in an area known as the Sunni "Triangle of Death," was one of the most devastating against U.S. soldiers since the Bush administration began sending some 30,000 additional U.S. troops to help secure Baghdad almost three months ago. In June, two American soldiers were abducted in the nearby town of Yusufiya. Their badly tortured bodies were later recovered.
The U.S. military immediately began searching for the missing men, and on Saturday night, helicopters, unmanned drones and jets buzzed over the area, which was cordoned off as soldiers searched vehicles to stop possible abductors from fleeing with the soldiers, said Lt. Col. Chris Garver, a U.S. military spokesman. The U.S. military also has asked local leaders to help, the military statement said.
"Make no mistake: We will never stop looking for our soldiers until their status is definitively determined, and we continue to pray for their safe return," said Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the spokesman for the Multi-National Force in Iraq, in a statement.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack. But five U.S. soldiers have been charged with the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl and the killing of her entire family in Mahmoudiya.
Saturday's incident occurred at 4:44 a.m. local time, when a nearby unit heard a powerful explosion. Minutes later, an unmanned drone spotted two vehicles in flames. A quick response team was sent to the scene, arrived at 5:40 a.m. and found five men dead, perhaps from the explosion or from small arms fire, but couldn't account for three people. The military wouldn't confirm if the Iraqi translator was among the dead.
The five deaths come as Sunni insurgents try a new tactic in an apparent effort to isolate and divide Iraq's capital. In the past month, car bombs have targeted at least five bridges, one underground tunnel in Baghdad and another west of Fallujah in Sunni-dominated Anbar province.
"It appears to be a deliberate, almost symbolic, way to separate the city into east and west," said Lt. Col. Chris Garver, the military spokesman, referring to the Shiite-dominated east bank of the Tigris River and the mostly Sunni west side of the river. "It appears to be typical of al Qaida-style attacks."
Ali Ghaidan, the commander of land forces in the Iraqi Army, said the effort aims to isolate the capital as troops secure neighborhoods.
"The insurgents aim to isolate Baghdad from other parts of Iraq," he said. "If they did so, it will affect the movement of the Iraqi army units."
On Friday, two truck bombs detonated on two bridges in south Baghdad that lead through the Sunni suburbs into the Shiite south, killing at least 10 and wounding 53, according to the U.S. military. Part of one bridge fell into the river.
Also on Friday, a car bomb damaged the busy thoroughfare that leads to Taji, north of Baghdad. It was stopped by Iraqi Security Forces but still shut down northbound traffic.
In April, the historical Sarafiya bridge that connects the east and west banks of the capital was destroyed, a bridge west of Fallujah was brought down by a bomb-laden vehicle, and a major underground tunnel was destroyed in south Baghdad.
Also Saturday, Ansar al-Sunnah, an Islamist insurgent group, claimed responsibility for the shooting of four Iraqi journalists in the northern city of Kirkuk this week. The online statement accused the four of spying for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite Dawa political party.
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed to this report.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.