Deadly May in Iraq

Published May 30, 2007

BAGHDAD - May is not yet over, and already it has recorded the third-highest monthly death toll for American forces in Iraq since the war began four years ago.

The military announced that 10 soldiers were killed in roadside bombings and a helicopter crash on Memorial Day. As of late Tuesday, there were at least 113 U.S. deaths in Iraq so far in May, with two days left in the month.

The U.S. military has said soldiers could face higher chances of ambush and capture under a new strategy to shift troops into smaller outposts - part of plans to seek more outreach with Iraqi civilians and possible tips on militant activities.

Since the war began in March 2003, only November 2004 and April 2004 had higher fatalities than May.

Violence in Diyala province, where eight of the deaths occurred, has surged since shortly before the U.S. military's offensive on Baghdad began in mid February. Diyala is northeast of Baghdad.

"We are seeing Diyala become the new hot spot, " said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a military spokesman.

He said the rising toll resulted from a doubling of U.S. forces in Diyala, where they have battled al-Qaida and insurgent groups that have moved there from Anbar province, in western Iraq, and Baghdad.

Iraqis are dying in far greater numbers. Across the country Tuesday, police and morgue officials contacted by the Associated Press reported at least 120 people killed or found dead. All of the officials declined to allow use of their names, fearing they could be targeted by militants.

Compounding the fresh evidence of chaos in Iraq, gunmen in police uniforms and driving vehicles used by security forces kidnapped five Britons from an Iraqi Finance Ministry office Tuesday, and a senior Iraqi official said the Mahdi Army, a radical Shiite militia, was suspected.

The kidnappings, if the work of the Mahdi Army, could be retaliation for the killing by British forces last week of the militia's commander in Basra.

Tuesday's raid also was reminiscent of an attack by the Shiite militiamen, dressed as Interior Ministry commandos, who stormed a Higher Education Ministry office Nov. 14 and snatched as many as 200 people. Dozens of those kidnap victims have not been found.

The Mahdi Army, which is deeply embedded in the Iraqi security forces, also was believed to be looking for a way to avenge the recent killing by U.S. forces of a top operative. The U.S. military said the operative was behind an attack in the holy city of Karbala in January in which gunmen - speaking English, wearing U.S. military uniforms and carrying American weapons - abducted four U.S. soldiers and then shot them to death.

Convoy speeds away

In the Finance Ministry attack, about 40 heavily armed men snatched the five Britons from an annex and sped away in a convoy of 19 four-wheel-drive vehicles toward Sadr City, the Mahdi Army stronghold not far away, according to the British Foreign Office in London and Iraqi officials in the Interior and Finance ministries.

Joe Gavaghan, a spokesman for Montreal-based security firm GardaWorld, confirmed that four of its security workers and one client were kidnapped. All four GardaWorld workers are British citizens, he said.

A spokesman for BearingPoint, a McLean, Va., -based management consulting firm, said one of the company's employees, apparently the client referred to by Gavaghan, was among those abducted.

Spokesman Steve Lunceford said BearingPoint has been working in Iraq since 2003 on a contract from the U.S. Agency for International Development to support economic recovery and reform.

Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said the abduction was carried out by men wearing police uniforms who showed up at the Finance Ministry data collection facility in the 19 four-wheel drive vehicles of the type used by police. Like the other officials, he said the kidnappers sped off toward Sadr City.

In the deaths of the U.S. troops, the military said eight of those killed Monday were from Task Force Lightning. Six were killed in an insurgent roadside bomb ambush as they raced to rescue the two others, who died in a helicopter crash. The military did not say if the helicopter was shot down or had mechanical problems.

"We know that the helicopter had received ground fire, but do not know yet the cause of the helicopter going down, " Garver said.

The dual attack demonstrated that the insurgency is adopting more sophisticated tactics and weapons. "They are an adaptive, difficult enemy with an ability to change tactics to adapt to what's happening on the ground, " Garver said.

Two other U.S. troops died Monday in a roadside bombing in Baghdad, the military said.

Also Tuesday, Baghdad police said two car bombers hit neighborhoods on opposite sides of the Tigris River, killing at least 40 people and wounding 123 others. A Shiite mosque was destroyed in the second of the two attacks, in the Amil neighborhood in west Baghdad.

The first attack hit Tayaran Square, riddling cars with shrapnel and knocking over pushcarts, witnesses said. The blast killed 23 people and wounded 68 others, a police official said on condition he not be named. The official said his superiors refused to allow him to speak to reporters.

Shop owners grabbed their wares and tried to flee, fearing a second blast, said Talib Dhirgham, who owns a laundry. Police who arrived at the scene confiscated the cameras of journalists who came to cover the aftermath.

More than an hour later, a pickup truck parked next to a Shiite mosque in the Amil district in western Baghdad exploded, demolishing the mosque, killing 17 people and wounding 55 others, said a police official who also declined to allow use of his name.

In other violence, gunmen in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, set up fake checkpoints on the outskirts of the city and abducted more than 40 people.

Information from the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times was used in this report.

By the numbers

113 U.S troops killed in Iraq in May, so far, the third-deadliest month.

137 Troops killed in November 2004, the deadliest month.

135 Troops killed in April 2004, the second-deadliest month.

3, 466 Members of the U.S. military who have died since the war began in March 2003.

Source: Associated Press

Our fallen

Our Casualties of War, a special report about local men and women who have died in Iraq, is at tampabay.com.