BAGHDAD -- An Iraqi soldier suspected of having ties to Sunni insurgents opened fire on U.S. troops during a joint operation, killing two soldiers and wounding three others, military officials said yesterday.
The incident on Dec. 26 is one of the few reported instances of an Iraqi soldier's turning on U.S. forces since the invasion in March 2003.
The Iraqi soldier killed Sgt. Benjamin Portell, 27, of Bakersfield, Calif., and Capt. Rowdy Inman, 38, of Houston "for reasons that are yet unknown," the U.S. military said. A civilian interpreter and three other soldiers were wounded in the attack, which occurred while 15 to 20 Iraqi and U.S. soldiers were setting up a combat outpost near the northern city of Mosul.
An Iraqi army official said the shooting was deliberate.
"Suddenly, one of the Iraqi soldiers opened fire intentionally and immediately killed two American soldiers," said Brig. Gen. Mutaa Khazraji, commander of the Iraqi army's 2nd Division.
U.S. military officials said the Iraqi soldier fled but was later identified and caught by other Iraqi army personnel. A second Iraqi soldier is also in custody, and the investigation is continuing to determine whether he also fired his weapon.
Maj. Gary Dangerfield, a spokesman for the 3rd Army Cavalry Regiment, could not confirm whether the two have ties to insurgents.
"We believe this is an isolated incident," Dangerfield said. "Right now, our relationship with Iraqi security forces is as strong as ever. We're still working together side by side."
Dangerfield praised Iraqi and U.S. troops for not overreacting at the time of the shooting. "It could have been a lot more chaotic than it was," he said. "They did a great job of handling the situation."
For the past four years, the U.S. military has considered training Iraqi troops and rebuilding the country's army one of its top priorities, with the hope that the Iraqi forces will eventually be responsible for the nation's security.
Iraqi soldiers undergo "thorough and very comprehensive screening" to make sure that they have no major criminal background or ties to insurgents, Dangerfield said, adding that there was "no indication whatsoever" of a potential problem.
There are no immediate plans to change the screening process, he said. "As I know it, we feel pretty confident in the system we have in place," Dangerfield said.
In June 2004, two National Guardsmen from California were killed by Iraqi security forces they were helping to train. The U.S. military originally attributed their deaths to an ambush by insurgents. But preliminary investigation results released in 2006 by the Army's Criminal Investigation Command concluded that the men had been killed by supposed allies.
In violence in Iraq yesterday, explosives hidden inside a minibus went off in southern Baghdad, injuring at least seven people. Another explosion targeted an Iraqi army patrol in northwest Baghdad, injuring seven.
Baghdad police also reported recovering 12 bodies, including five that were found in the Dora neighborhood in southern Baghdad.
The U.S. military reported that it had detained 18 insurgent suspects Thursday in operations in central Iraq.
Also, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki returned yesterday from London, where he had undergone what he called routine medical exams.
Kimi Yoshino writes for the Los Angeles Times.