BAGHDAD -- Al-Qaida militants holed up in a volatile southeastern Baghdad neighborhood were believed responsible for an ambush that killed five U.S. soldiers scouring the capital for bomb-building sites, a spokesman for U.S.-led forces said yesterday.
After a sniper's bullet felled a soldier Saturday in the Arab Jubour district, his fellow troops from Task Force Marne rushed the house from which the shot was fired, said Janah Hammoud. As they did, an explosion from a pressure-activated blast killed four more soldiers and injured four.
Since the Pentagon stepped up its offensive against al-Qaida in Iraq and other militants with the addition of 28,500 troops sent to Iraq this year, casualties have mounted, as have the complexity of attacks on U.S. patrols. The latest deaths bring to at least 3,690 the number of Americans killed since the U.S.-led invasion began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Task Force Marne, which has now lost at least 70 soldiers in four months, has been targeting insurgent bomb-making sites and safe houses in the capital's violence-plagued southern underbelly. The area is also the scene of much of the sectarian killings plaguing the city.
Coalition forces also raided suspected al-Qaida in Iraq hide-outs yesterday in western Baghdad, Samarra, Mosul and Tikrit, arresting 30 suspected militants, including two accused of weapons trafficking for the group, the military reported.
"Our operations continue to target those who associate with and work for al-Qaida in Iraq's leaders," said Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, U.S. military spokesman. "The pressure is on, and we are keeping them on the run." Meanwhile, embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called on the fractious political and ethnic factions to hold a summit within the next few days to renew efforts at national reconciliation.
"I have extended an invitation to the main political leadership to meet and discuss essential issues in the political process," al-Maliki told Iraqi television, vowing that his Shiite-led government would find compromise with Sunni, Kurdish and other factions if their power-sharing concerns were legitimate and constitutional.
It remained uncertain, however, whether Sunni leaders would heed the call for negotiations. The leader of the largest Sunni political bloc in the Iraqi parliament appealed to neighboring Arab countries for help yesterday in defeating what he called Iranian-supported Shiite violence against Sunnis.
Baghdad is at risk of falling to "Persians" and "Safawis," said Adnan Dulaimi of the Iraqi Accordance Front, accusing Iranian-backed death squads of trying to drive Sunnis from the capital.
Seventeen of al-Maliki's 37 Cabinet ministers have abandoned the government in recent weeks, many saying that the Shiite prime minister has turned a blind eye to torture, assassinations and execution-style slayings by Shiite militants. Much of the violence has been blamed on Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Al Mahdi militia operating from the impoverished Sadr City area of the capital.
President Bush ordered the increase in troop levels earlier this year, bringing the total U.S. deployment to nearly 160,000, in an attempt to quell both insurgents and sectarian extremists so al-Maliki could firm up the fragile ethnic and religious coalition that makes up his government. The political alliance has shown signs of unraveling, though, heightening concerns about Iraq's future and the effectiveness of the surge.
Mortars landed on a northern neighborhood of the capital last night, killing four Iraqis. An Iraqi soldier on vacation was gunned down outside of his home in Babel, and an Interior Ministry source reported that 17 bullet-riddled male bodies were found during the day dumped around Baghdad.
Elsewhere in Iraq, the deputy prime minister flew to Baqouba yesterday under heavy guard with promises of food, jobs and cash for a city emerging from the sway of Sunni Arab militants largely driven out by U.S.-led troops. What he got was an earful.
Men in long white dishdashas pushed past the crush of bodyguards, soldiers, aides and journalists that surrounded Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh in a market street, demanding to know when food rations would arrive from Baghdad and when government pensions would be paid.
Young veiled women told him they had risked their lives to sit through university exams in an area where Iraqi soldiers once dared not go and still had not received their test results. Employees at a state-run electrical plant said their salaries went unpaid for months at a time. And tribal leaders gathered at the Diyala provincial governor's fortified office berated him for talking about development projects when insurgents still terrorize outlying roads and villages.
"What you are talking about are dreams," said Sheik Hamid Anbagiya. "First we have to stop the insurgency. Then we can talk about civil services and projects." But Saleh told reporters he was encouraged by what he saw: Dusty streets full of shoppers, crates of tomatoes, cucumbers and sodas for sale in the market, and men with graying beards smoking cigarettes and sipping glasses of sweet tea at a cafe.
A month ago, he said, the governor dared not leave his home for fear of militants who for more than a year had imposed a reign of fear. "Today, we could see life returning to Baqouba, " he said.
As he spoke, gunfire erupted nearby as U.S. forces guarding the meeting took aim at a sniper who had fired shots at them.
"This is a work in progress, apparently," Saleh conceded with a shrug and a smile.
Carol J. Williams and Alexandra Zavis write for the Los Angeles Times.