BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The U.S. military blamed al Qaeda on Monday for the abduction of three U.S. soldiers in an ambush south of Baghdad and the Islamist group demanded an end to a massive search as the only way to secure their safety.
The soldiers went missing after an attack in a dangerous rural area on Saturday in which four other U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi translator belonging to the same patrol were killed.
The apparently coordinated strike came as U.S. President George W. Bush is deploying 30,000 more U.S. troops due in Iraq in June and as Democrats in Congress step up calls for the withdrawal of American forces in the four-year old war.
“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,” U.S. military spokesman Major-General William Caldwell said in the first U.S. admission that the three had been seized by the militant group.
The al Qaeda-led Islamic State in Iraq demanded in a Web site statement that Washington stop a search involving more than 4,000 U.S. troops to guarantee the welfare of the soldiers.
“Your soldiers are in our grip. If you want the safety of your soldiers then do not search for them,” it said.
The group did not elaborate but the statement implied the missing soldiers were alive. The posting did not carry pictures of the soldiers, make demands for their release or say what their fate would be.
In a recording made before al Qaeda posted its statement, Caldwell said the military was using “every asset and resource available to the United States and our Iraqi allies in these efforts”.
Asked if the military would heed al Qaeda’s demands to suspend the search, military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher Garver said: “We are going to find our soldiers, we are going to keep searching for our soldiers.”
Caldwell said the patrol had been part of a U.S. unit sent to intercept roadside bombs in the area.
Al Qaeda suggested it attacked the convoy as revenge for the rape and murder of a teenager last year in the same area.
“Remember what you have done in this place. You have violated our sister Abeer al-Janabi,” it said, referring to the rape and murder of a 14-year-old and the killing of her family in Mahmudiya in March 2006.
A U.S. soldier was sentenced to 100 years in a military prison after pleading guilty in a case that enraged Iraqis.
Backed by helicopters and jets, U.S. and Iraqi troops 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.
Last June, al Qaeda abducted two U.S. soldiers in the same area. Their badly mutilated and booby-trapped bodies were found days later after a search by 8,000 troops.
Bush has called al Qaeda “public enemy number one” in Iraq.
Saturday’s ambush, one of the worst strikes by al Qaeda against U.S. forces since the 2003 invasion, came despite a U.S. troop “surge” aimed at securing Baghdad and areas outside the capital.
The plan is seen as a final push to halt a slide into all-out civil war between majority Shi’ites and minority Sunni Arabs.
In more violence against U.S.-led forces in Iraq, two U.S. soldiers were killed and another four were wounded southeast of Baghdad and a Danish soldier died in an ambush near the southern city of Basra, a stronghold of Shi’ite militias.
A U.S. Marine was also killed in Anbar province, the U.S. military said.
Iran and the United States said the two countries would hold talks in Baghdad in the next few weeks aimed at easing violence in Iraq, which Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has said threatens to spread across the region.
Talks between Shi’ite Iran and the United States, which accuses Tehran of supplying and training Shi’ite militia in Iraq, are rare. The two countries, at loggerheads over Iran’s nuclear programme, have not had diplomatic ties for more than a quarter century. Iran denies charges it stirs trouble in Iraq.
Additional reporting by Inal Ersan in Dubai