As battle deepens, 14 troops die in Iraq

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The U.S. military on announced yesterday the deaths of 14 more soldiers in the past three days, a heavy toll that underscored the increased exposure of American forces as reinforcements push deeper into war-torn neighborhoods of Baghdad and outlying areas in a bid to flush out militants.

Northeast of the capital, a car bomb exploded about 200 yards from the entrance of a U.S. military base, unleashing a noxious cloud of chlorine gas that sickened at least 62 soldiers but caused no injuries, the military said. All of those exposed returned to duty the same day.

The use of chlorine canisters to turn an ordinary bomb into a chemical weapon has become a signature tactic of insurgents in Anbar province, west of Baghdad. But yesterday's attack was believed to be the first time the method was used in Diyala province, north and east of the capital.

At least 62 Iraqis died or were reported killed in bomb blasts, gunfights and other violence across the country, including a priest and three bishops slain by gunmen in the northern city of Mosul.

U.S. officials had warned that increased American casualties were likely during the troop buildup that began in mid-February. A key part of the plan is the establishment of joint security stations with Iraqi police and soldiers in many of Baghdad's most troubled sections and increased visibility in the streets.

The military had previously reported the death of at least one other U.S. soldier this month.

Last month was the third-deadliest so far for U.S. forces in Iraq, with 127 personnel reported killed.

Eight of the 14 U.S. soldiers whose deaths were reported yesterday died in bomb blasts in and around Baghdad in the past two days. Four of them were killed in a single explosion yesterday during a search operation northwest of the capital, the military said.

Two other soldiers were killed Saturday in roadside bombings in Diyala, and two died in similar attacks the same day in Nineveh province, north of Baghdad, the military said.

Southwest of the capital, a U.S. patrol attempted to question two suspicious people near a mosque Friday. As they approached, one of the men blew himself up, killing one soldier in the patrol, the military said. Another soldier was killed by small-arms fire Saturday while patrolling south of Baghdad.

A thick smell of chorine hung over Forward Operating Base Warhorse on the edge of the Diyala provincial capital, Baqubah, after yesterday's attack. The 62 soldiers affected sought treatment for dizziness and nausea, said Maj. Raul Marquez, a military spokesman at the base. In high doses, chlorine gas can cause fatal lung damage.

Groups linked to al-Qaida have used trucks laden with explosives and chlorine gas at least 10 times since January in their fight against Sunni Arab tribesmen who have joined forces with U.S. and Iraqi troops in Anbar. Iraqi police said the vehicle used in yesterday's attack was a taxi.

An hour earlier, nine mortar rounds were fired at the base, injuring two soldiers. One soldier was hit by shrapnel in the forehead while getting a haircut before going on leave, the military said. Another suffered a gash to his hand.

The mortar barrage occurred during lunchtime, sending some soldiers scrambling out of the mess hall for bunkers while others carried on eating.

Diyala, a religiously and ethnically mixed province that shares a border with Iran, has suffered recurrent bloodshed since the start of the war. U.S. forces there are battling a complex mix of factions, including members of the late dictator Saddam Hussein's military, foreign-led al-Qaida forces, and Shiite Muslim militiamen, who the U.S. military says are backed by Iran.

U.S. officials believe that militants fleeing the troop buildup in Baghdad and Anbar might be behind the recent spike in attacks in Diyala. About 3,000 additional U.S. troops have been deployed to the province since the security crackdown.

Among the attacks yesterday on Iraqis, at least 10 people were killed and 30 injured when a suicide car bomber detonated his payload in a busy market area in Balad Ruz, about 30 miles east of Baqubah, said Col. Faris Hussein, the local police chief.

The bomber appeared to be targeting a police convoy that was transporting prisoners through the area, he said. Two policemen were among those killed, and 10 cars, including six police vehicles, were set ablaze.

Alexandra Zavis and Garrett Therolf write for the Los Angeles Times.

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