BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The U.S. military said on Monday it believed that three U.S. soldiers missing in Iraq were abducted by al Qaeda and the Islamist militant group demanded an end to a massive search as the only way to secure their safety.
“At this time, we believe they were abducted by terrorists belonging to al Qaeda or an affiliated group and this assessment is based on highly credible intelligence information,” chief military spokesman Major-General William Caldwell said.
The three soldiers went missing after an ambush south of Baghdad on Saturday in which four other U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi translator were killed.
“Your soldiers are in our grip. If you want the safety of your soldiers then do not search for them,” the Islamic State in Iraq said in a statement posted on a Web site.
The group did not elaborate but its statement implied the soldiers were still alive. The posting did not carry pictures of the soldiers, make demands for their release or say what their fate would be.
In a statement recorded before al Qaeda’s demand for an end to the search was posted, Caldwell said the American soldiers were classified as “whereabouts unknown”.
He said the U.S. military was “using every asset and resource available to the United States and our Iraqi allies in these efforts”.
More than 4,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops backed by helicopters and jets combed through lush palm groves, searched cars and went door-to-door looking for any signs of the missing soldiers in an area known as the “Triangle of Death”. Residents said the town of Yusufiya and surrounding rural areas have been sealed off.
“The operations to locate our soldiers are ongoing, and we would not want to do anything that would jeopardize these efforts,” Caldwell said.
The ambush is one of the worst strikes by the Sunni Arab militant group against U.S. forces in Iraq since the invasion in 2003.
Last June, al Qaeda abducted two U.S. soldiers in the same area where the patrol of seven U.S. soldiers and one Iraqi army interpreter were ambushed. Their badly mutilated and booby-trapped bodies were found days later.
Saturday’s attack came as U.S. President George W. Bush is deploying 30,000 more U.S. troops due in Iraq in June in what is seen as a final push to halt a slide into all-out civil war between majority Shi’ites and Sunni Arabs.
The crackdown is also aimed at securing areas outside Baghdad where U.S. commanders say militants are building car bombs and staging attacks on the capital.
Bush, who is under pressure from Democrats in Congress to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, has called al Qaeda “public enemy number one” in Iraq. (Additional reporting by Inal Ersan in Dubai)