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Iraq's Al Qaeda attacks higher-impact targets

An Al Qaeda-linked group ambushed American troops on Saturday, capturing three.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 14, 2007



BAGHDAD

The fate of three missing American soldiers, apparently captured after a weekend Al Qaeda ambush, remained uncertain Sunday, but the mission to find them demonstrated a new reality for US forces: They are facing a deadlier Iraq as their numbers rise.

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The Saturday attack that killed four soldiers and an interpreter in Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad, follows a string of strikes on US forces over the past month, particularly in volatile Diyala Province north of Baghdad, resulting in high casualties. In April, 104 Americans were killed, the deadliest month this year, and so far this month 43 US soldiers have died, according to icasualties.org, a website that tracks Coalition deaths in Iraq. In April 2006, the site reported, 76 Americans were killed.

Al Qaeda forces in Iraq "are changing their tactics because of the American surge," says Toby Dodge, an expert in Iraq affairs at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "They are shifting their fight to two fronts, the Iraqis and the Americans," he adds, with the dual aims of advancing Iraq's sectarian violence and influencing the US military strategy by striking high-profile blows.

President Bush has warned in speeches recently that troops would face higher danger in Iraq and that US casualties were likely to rise as the military shifts to tactics taking soldiers into insurgent-dominated areas and closer contact with enemy forces.

But the ambush in an insurgent stronghold known as the "triangle of death" suggests that Al Qaeda in Iraq is pursuing its goal announced earlier this year of stepping up attacks on US forces.

The intense search operation following Saturday's attack, involving thousands of US and Iraqi forces and employing everything from field sweeps and checkpoints to infrared heat-detecting technology and unmanned drones, is in part standard US military procedure in the case of captured soldiers.

The hunt also reflects concerns, born of experience in Iraq, about the methods the Iraqi insurgency and Al Qaeda in particular use to turn captives into propaganda tools.

Saturday's strike echoes a June 2006 attack in the "triangle of death" that was one of the rare cases of US soldiers in Iraq taken captive. In an incident at a fake checkpoint not far from Mahmoudiya in the town of Yusefiya, one soldier was killed and two were seized. Their severely tortured bodies were found days later.

In that case, an Internet statement posted by the Mujahideen Shura, an umbrella insurgent group including Al Qaeda in Iraq, claimed the killings "carried out the verdict of the Islamic court."

After the April truck bombings in Diyala, Internet postings by the Islamic State of Iraq claimed the attack and announced creation of a "cabinet" and a "ministry of war."

"Let the enemy expect more from the ministry, with power and might from the glorified God," one posting said. "The suicide brigades are continually increasing" in response to the growing "intruding brigades," an apparent reference to the "surge" of about 25,000 US troops to the Iraq fight.

The evolution of attacks by the Sunni insurgency, including Al Qaeda, to higher-profile, higher-casualty operations reflect both the squeeze brought on by the US surge and frustrations with civilian rejection of Al Qaeda, Iraqi sources say.

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