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American Soldiers in Iraq Search for Their Own


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR news. Renee Montagne is away. I'm Steve Inskeep. Thousands of American troops are searching for three of their own. The U.S. soldiers were on patrol over the weekend when they were ambushed. Four Americans were killed, along with an Iraqi interpreter. Three other Americans are listed as missing, and an al-Qaida-linked insurgent group described as the Islamic State of Iraq says it captured the Americans.

NPR's Anne Garrels joins us now from Baghdad. And Anne, where are Americans searching here?

ANNE GARRELS: Well, they're searching south of Baghdad. The ambush occurred near Mahmoudiya, a predominantly Sunni Arab farming town. It's just south of the capital. It's a region of dense date palm orchards used by insurgents as hideouts.

It's in the area long known as the Triangle of Death, because both Sunni Arab insurgents and Shiite militias are active here. Last year, Sunni insurgents in this area captured two American soldiers. Their bodies were subsequently found a few days later. They'd been tortured and insurgents booby-trapped the area and the bodies themselves.

Now, the U.S. military recently created a new command covering an area about the size of West Virginia in this region, because insurgents and militias are using these outlying rural towns to store munitions, build car bombs and stage attacks on the capital. There have been a lot of clashes here of late. Even before Saturday's attack, units operating here had lost 15 soldiers in less than two months.

INSKEEP: Well, I have to ask, I haven't heard that phrase triangle of death in the news for quite some time because so much focus has been on Baghdad to the north of there. Is violence outside of Baghdad overall on its way up again?

GARRELS: In some areas, yes. On Friday, General Randy Mixon, who commands American troops north of Baghdad, said he doesn't have enough troops to fight the insurgency in Diyala, which has now become one of the most violent areas and among the deadliest for American forces. And today, gunmen opened fire on a police checkpoint there, killing three Iraqi policemen.

Now, General Rick Lynch, who's in charge of the new command of the south in the area around Mahmoudiya, says he regards al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, which is one of the groups claiming responsibility for kidnapping the missing soldiers, as his most serious problem. And he says it's like hydra, he said it keeps regenerating its heads.

INSKEEP: Well, are those regenerated heads using different tactics, behaving in a different way?

GARRELS: Not really. While they have been squeezed in parts of Baghdad and in Anbar to the west, there seems to be a steady supply of suicide bombers willing and able to act. They continue to exact a heavy toll and they continue to fuel sectarian tensions.

Sunni extremists are facing problems in some areas where Sunni residents are balking at their extreme fundamentalist beliefs and pressure tactics. But they're not trying to make nice because of this. Al-Qaida in Iraq is continuing to terrorize communities. This weekend, insurgents shot five Iraqis in broad daylight in downtown Bakuba as a warning to anyone who collaborates with the Americans.

INSKEEP: We are talking with NPR's Anne Garrels in Baghdad. And Anne, I don't want to lose sight of the political situation, which is what everyone says is the most important thing here. Has there been any political progress toward a political solution or settlement in Baghdad?

GARRELS: Bluntly put, no. Parliament's meetings last week basically dissolved into shouting matches. Efforts to get more Sunnis engaged both in the military and the political process are still just words, and the oil law has stalled. It had been agreed to by all the parties, but it's now being disputed by the Kurds, who want control over their resources. And with these political disputes there's growing tensions over the fate of the oil-rich region of Kirkuk, which is claimed by both Kurds and Arabs.

Al-Qaida in Iraq carried out a suicide bombing against a Kurdish political party there yesterday. Last week, it also claimed responsibility for a major bombing in the usually quiet Kurdish capital of Irbil. Now, this all raises concerns about escalating violence up there.

INSKEEP: Okay, Annie, thanks very much. That's NPR's Anne Garrels in Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Anne Garrels