BAGHDAD — The United States acknowledged Monday that three missing American soldiers probably were being held by militants linked to Al Qaeda, and it announced the deaths of six more U.S. troops.
A Danish soldier also was mortally wounded in a battle in which insurgents trapped several troops, who were rescued by British soldiers.
Seven soldiers from Denmark have died in Iraq. The country is due to begin withdrawing its 430 troops, who operate under British command in southern Iraq, in August.
The clash began when a roadside bomb blew up next to a patrol as it passed through Hartha, north of Basra. Gunmen opened fire on the soldiers, sparking a battle that witnesses said killed two young men in the crossfire.
The soldiers sought shelter inside a nearby building, which gunmen then surrounded, according to the British military. British troops stormed the house and rescued the Danish soldiers, the military said.
Witnesses said they saw three Danish troops taken captive, but the British military denied that account. Six Danish soldiers were wounded in the attack, one of whom later died, the statement said.
Southwest of Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi forces sealed off villages as they continued searching for three American troops missing since a Saturday ambush that killed four U.S. troops and an Iraqi soldier working as an interpreter.
The Islamic State of Iraq, an insurgent group linked to Al Qaeda that claimed responsibility for the attack, issued a statement on a website Monday warning searchers to call off their hunt.
"Your soldiers are in our hands. If you want their safety, do not look for them," the message said. The group did not provide proof that it was holding the men, whose identities have not been released, but the chief spokesman for the U.S.-led multinational force in Iraq, Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, acknowledged that the group probably had the soldiers.
"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," he said.
Caldwell said the soldiers had been out before dawn monitoring a road between the cities of Mahmoudiya and Yousifiya, watching for insurgents who often plant roadside bombs. The cities are in a region known as the "triangle of death" because of the high frequency of attacks by Sunni Arab insurgents.
In June, two U.S. troops were captured in the region and killed, an attack claimed by a group loyal to Al Qaeda.
An Iraqi army official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the search was focused on Harghawiya, which is inhabited mainly by Sunni tribes. Witnesses said U.S. helicopters had been picking people up and taking them to nearby bases for questioning.
The search took place during an increasingly grim month for American forces in Iraq. So far in May, at least 50 U.S. troops have died, according to military statements and the website icasualties.org, which monitors war-related deaths. Six deaths were reported Monday, five of them in combat.
The fatalities included two soldiers shot to death while on foot patrol in southeast Baghdad, and another killed by a roadside bomb in north Baghdad. An airman was killed by a bomb in north Baghdad, and a Marine was killed in Al Anbar province, west of the capital. Another soldier died of noncombat causes, the military said.
Since the U.S.-led 2003 invasion of Iraq, at least 3,401 U.S. troops have died, according to icasualties.org.
In Baghdad on Monday, two car bombs exploded in busy areas of the city, killing as many as eight people. Three more people died in separate mortar attacks in south Baghdad. Two Iraqi soldiers died when a suicide bomber attacked a military checkpoint in west Baghdad's Mansour neighborhood.
Police reported finding 18 bodies, apparent victims of sectarian death squads, across the capital.
The U.S. military also announced that it had captured a close associate of Al Qaeda's leadership in Iraq during a predawn raid in Baghdad. The person's identity was not given, but the statement identified him as being suspected of conspiring directly with the senior leadership of the group Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Times staff writer Saif Hameed and special correspondents in Baghdad, Babil province and Basra contributed to this report.