BAGHDAD, Iraq - Five Marines were killed by a roadside bomb in western Iraq, the U.S. military announced yesterday, while the bodies of 21 Iraqis were found dumped near the Syrian border.
The Anbar province incidents occurred in the Euphrates River valley where U.S. and Iraqi forces launched two major operations last month targeting domestic and foreign insurgents who had taken control of remote river towns. Eleven Marines and 137 rebels were killed in those two offensives.
The five Marines, assigned to Regimental Combat Team 2, were driving in a vehicle that hit a bomb near Haqlaniyah on Thursday, a few miles downriver from one of last month's operations in Haditha, the military said.
Twelve of the Iraqis were found with their hands tied behind their backs near Jabab, just east of Qaim, where the other operation was based last month. The remaining bodies were outside Fosfat, also near Qaim, officials said.
All 21 bodies were in civilian clothes, according to witnesses, including Associated Press staff members. Iraqi authorities were studying the findings for any connection to the disappearance Tuesday of almost two dozen Iraqi soldiers.
Before the Iraqi forces disappeared, they were dressed in civilian clothes and heading to Baghdad for a break from duty near the Syrian border, where smuggling and infiltration of foreign fighters have often been rampant, authorities said.
"That is something we're looking at, I'm sure," said David Stevens, adviser to the Ministry of Defense.
At least two of the bodies were beheaded, and some of the others were blindfolded and slain execution-style, an Interior Ministry official said.
"The bodies were left in the desert, and we don't know yet if these bodies belong to the Iraqi army soldiers," said Interior Ministry spokesman Col. Adnan Abdul Rahman.
Probe of 2 deaths
In other news yesterday, the Army announced that it is launching a criminal investigation into the deaths of two soldiers in what initially was believed to be a mortar attack.
An examination by explosives experts determined that the blast pattern was inconsistent with a mortar attack, and the incident is being investigated by the Army's Criminal Investigation Division, Central Command announced.
"The evidence is that this was not a combat attack or incident," said Col. Bill Buckner, spokesman for the Multi-National Corps in Iraq. "The evidence indicates that this was not indeed caused by a mortar attack."
The slain officers - Capt. Phillip T. Esposito, 30, and Lt. Louis E. Allen, 39 - had been living in a waterfront palace in Tikrit, on the grounds of a sprawling compound that Saddam Hussein had built along the Tigris River on the edge of his hometown. The U.S. Army has occupied the compound, Forward Operating Base Danger, since shortly after the war began in 2003.
Other soldiers living in other rooms of the palace reported hearing a series of four explosions about 10 p.m. Tuesday. They rushed to the men's aid, but both officers died of their injuries.
Buckner said no one - neither American service members living on the base nor foreign nationals who work there - has been detained in the case. He would not discuss other forms of indirect fire, such as grenades, which would be consistent with inflicting the kinds of injuries the two officers suffered or producing the kinds of blasts other soldiers reported hearing.
There has been at least one murder of U.S. personnel by a fellow soldier since the start of the conflict in Iraq. In April, an Army court-martial convicted Sgt. Hasan Akbar, a former member of the 101st Airborne Division, of killing two officers while they slept in their tent just days before the invasion.
Yesterday, the ground-floor window to the room where Esposito and Allen had been living was boarded up. Other soldiers living at the palace were carrying hundreds of sandbags inside to fortify their rooms despite the oppressive heat.
"We are evaluating all possible threats to our soldiers," Buckner said when asked whether soldiers should be concerned that whoever might have carried out the attack is at large. "We are taking all measures to ensure the safety of our soldiers."
Esposito and Allen had been assigned to the 42nd Infantry Division, New York Army National Guard. Esposito was the Headquarters and Headquarters Company commander. Allen was a company operations officer and had arrived in Iraq just a few days before his death.
Office for EU
Meanwhile, one day after European Union leaders made their first high-level visit to Iraq since the U.S.-led 2003 invasion, EU officials said yesterday that they were planning to install a permanent office in Baghdad within a few months.
EU officials are considering setting up their offices in the so-called Green Zone, considered the most secure area in Baghdad. It is near the center of the capital near the Tigris River and contains the U.S. Embassy and several military offices.
Baghdad and areas south of it are being scoured by Iraqi forces in Operation Lightning, which in almost three weeks has arrested about 1,000 purported insurgents and suspects, authorities said.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
At least 37 members of the U.S. military have been killed in 26 roadside bombings since Iraq's new government was announced April 28, according to a count by the Associated Press.
The deadliest of the attacks to date came Thursday when five Marines died in a blast while on patrol near the town of Haqlaniyah, which is 90 miles north of Baghdad.
Before that, the heaviest toll was May 11, when four Marines died as a bomb detonated near their vehicle in Karabilah, during Operation Matador.