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Intense search continues for missing U.S. soldiers

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Helicopters hovered in the air near the city of Balad on Friday, and Army Humvees and tanks roared through area streets as U.S. troops searched for two soldiers who disappeared Wednesday morning while on guard duty near this small town north of Baghdad.

The intense search, which began two days ago, has netted at least six arrests of Iraqis who were being questioned about the soldiers' disappearance, according to U.S. Central Command and Coalition spokesman Maj. William Thurmond. Thurmond would not speculate on the soldiers' fate or why officials believed the Iraqis were involved in the disappearance.

"Obviously as a result of the investigation, there's something in their behaviors or backgrounds that makes them suspect," he said.

Also Friday, Central Command said that a soldier attached to the 1st U.S. Marine Expeditionary Force was shot and killed Thursday while investigating a car theft in Najaf, a city southwest of Baghdad in an area formerly believed to be calm and under control. Central Command said that the soldier died before he could be evacuated from the area.

A U.S. soldier also was shot in the head and critically wounded while shopping in northwest Baghdad on Friday. The soldier was a civil affairs officer, responsible for building relations with the local community.

The incidents only further underlined the Coalition's tenuous grasp on law and order after three months of occupation. Restless citizens continued to complain about the soldiers' presence while making threats against them.

"We're not afraid of them and their guns," Baghdad resident Hassan Abraham said. "We thought we'd have something better than Saddam but the Americans are worse."

In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told U.S. senators that the ongoing attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq did not amount to a guerrilla war. "I don't know that I would use the word. There were something in the neighborhood of a hundred thousand people turned out of their prisons. Those people are out there; they're doing things that are unhelpful to the Iraqi people. It's also no question but that there are leftover remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime that are doing things that are against the coalition."

Outside Balad, many people said they were unaware soldiers were missing and laughed at the thought of Iraqis being responsible.

"Where would I put them?" one roadside vendor said, mystified, looking at the three walls of the grass structure that shades his stacks of red, green and blue soda cans.

The two soldiers were guarding a rocket demolition site approximately 13 miles northwest of Taji on Wednesday and were last seen at 8:30 a.m., Central Command said.

"At some point, they failed to answer a radio call," Thurmond said. "Other soldiers went out to check on them and discovered them missing."

Also gone were the soldiers' Humvee and all of their equipment. There were no signs of a gunfight, Central Command said. Information was withheld from the media so as not to impede the search, the Coalition said in a written statement.

Balad has been a periodic hot spot for coalition forces. On June 13, Iraqis attacked a tank convoy with rocket-propelled grenades. In the subsequent search for the perpetrators, U.S. soldiers killed seven people, including five civilians.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.