Troops search for 3 soldiers; group claims responsibility

BAGHDAD—While some 4,000 American troops searched Sunday for three comrades who disappeared after a pre-dawn ambush Saturday, a Sunni Muslim insurgent group claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed four U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi Army translator.

Though it offered no proof, the Islamic State in Iraq, which has called for a separate Sunni Muslim state in Iraq and is believed to have ties to al Qaida in Mesopotamia, said on a Web site Sunday that it was responsible for the pre-dawn raid near Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of Baghdad.

"God has granted your brothers in the Islamic State in Iraq (the authority) to clash with the crusaders' patrol ...," the insurgent group said. "We will provide the full details about this blessed operation as soon as we receive them."

The group also claimed that it's forming battalions to launch attacks in several provinces and promised to attack U.S.-led forces and Iraqi government compounds. It cited a suicide bombing last month in the Iraqi parliament's cafeteria in the middle of the highly fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, where top U.S. and Iraqi officials live and work.

Saturday's ambush, and the suggestion by insurgents that they may seek to use it for propaganda purposes, came as President Bush is pressing the Iraqi government to make political progress and battling ebbing public and political support for his Iraq policy.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on CNN Sunday that Republicans are "overwhelmingly disappointed" by Iraq's lack of political progress. "The Iraqi government is a huge disappointment," McConnell said.

"The president may find himself standing alone sometime this fall where Republicans will start to move away, and you're starting to see trap doors and exit signs already with a number of Republicans," Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a longtime critic of the administration's Iraq policy and a possible 2008 presidential candidate, told CBS.

While the political debate continued in Washington, U.S. and Iraqi troops on foot and in convoys scoured the area around Mahmoudiya on Sunday looking for the three missing soldiers as helicopters, jets and aerial drones flew overhead. The U.S. military said it also used satellite surveillance of the town in an effort to track down the men.

The ambush and search fall in an area populated by Sunni insurgents and often referred to as the "triangle of death." Two American soldiers were killed there last year after they disappeared from a checkpoint.

"We've also engaged the local population," said Lt. Col. Chris Garver, a U.S. military spokesman. "We are talking with the local community leaders and we've actually started to get information from them. We're working on several fronts."

Gordon Johndroe, a National Security Council spokesman in Washington, said that President Bush is getting regular updates on the search for the missing soldiers.

Elsewhere, a suicide truck bomb Sunday killed at least 50 and wounded some 115 in Makhmur in Kurdish northern Iraq when it hit the offices of one of the region's main political parties. The area had been marked by relative peace, but two terrorist bombings in two days have killed at least 65 civilians and wounded more than 200.

A bomb that killed at least 15 on Wednesday in Irbil, about 40 miles northwest of Makhmur and 200 miles north of Baghdad, had been the bloodiest violence in the area since 2004.

Now the region that's been marketing itself to potential investors at "the other Iraq"—peaceful and prosperous—has for at least a week looked like the rest of Iraq.

"It is very clear that with the Irbil bombing (on Wednesday) and now this bombing in Makhmur, the terrorists are trying to convey a message that it isn't just Baghdad and other places that are dangerous, that it's even the Kurdish areas," said Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd and Iraq's foreign minister. He's a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, whose offices were hit by the truck bomb.

"Actually, they are wrong," he said. "These are isolated incidents. This is desperation on their part."

Isolated, perhaps, but bloody nonetheless.

The truck bomb struck shortly before noon and killed 37, leaving at least 10 more people critically injured. The dead included seven of the building's guards and eight police officers.

Among the wounded was Abdu Rahman Bilaf, the city's mayor, a celebrated Kurdish author and an important liaison with U.S. troops in the area. Makhmur is a prominently Kurdish town with significant Arab and Turkomen populations.

A Kurdish intelligence officer, Col. Salar Ahmed, said the recent bombings appear aimed at thwarting Kurdish rule in the area.

"They want to impose their agenda by explosions and killing," Ahmed said.

In Baghdad, a car parked near the bustling Sadriyah market exploded at about 3 p.m. Estimates of the death toll ran from 5 to 14, with at least three dozen more wounded. A car bombing at the slum market on April 18 killed 127 people, following a similar massacre at the market last year.

U.S. forces said they rounded up 35 people around the country suspected to have ties to al Qaida in Iraq and other anti-government or anti-American groups.


Canon reports for The Kansas City Star. McClatchy special correspondents Yasseen Taha contributed from Tikrit and Mahmoud al Dulaimy contributed from Baghdad.


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.