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Booby trap kills 6 U.S. soldiers

The house rigged with explosives is the work of Iraq insurgents who fled just before a military operation against them.

January 10, 2008|Alexandra Zavis and Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writers

SINSIL THARIA, IRAQ — Senior Sunni Arab insurgents may have fled the Diyala River valley this week just as U.S. troops were preparing to attack, but they left behind a deadly calling card.

A booby-trapped home exploded Wednesday, killing six American soldiers and injuring four others. The U.S. military also reported that three service members were killed by small-arms fire the day before. The two-day toll makes the latest effort to flush out the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq the deadliest military operation in months.

The casualties came as about 4,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops descended Tuesday on Diyala province as part of a campaign to put new pressure on insurgents nationwide. Military officials believe many settled in the area north of Baghdad after being forced out of the capital and Anbar province in the west.

At least 3,921 U.S. troops have been killed since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, according to the independent website icasualties.org. The last time six American troops were killed in a single hostile incident was in late May, in a roadside bombing in the Diyala community of Abu Sayda.

The Diyala region accounts for more than 40% of attacks nationwide. Intelligence reports estimated that 50 to 60 senior insurgent leaders had been holed up northwest of Muqdadiya, but by the time the offensive began, they had fled -- in keeping with a long-standing pattern.

As U.S. forces continue to press into areas where they have not regularly patrolled, they have been at greater risk of encountering homes rigged with large amounts of explosives, officials said.

The military offered no details about Wednesday's deadly attack, nor did it release the names of the dead soldiers, pending notification of their families.

"We are looking really closely at the tactic," said Edward Loomis, a spokesman for the Pentagon's Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization. "We will continue to do everything we can to lower the risk of these events occurring. We are going to look really hard at this one."

Rigged houses typically use explosives and triggering devices similar to those in roadside bombs or car bombs, which the military calls vehicle-borne IEDs.

U.S. forces in Iraq first encountered large numbers of booby-trapped houses during the battle of Fallouja in 2004. American forces had steered clear of the city in Anbar province for much of that year, then telegraphed their intention to clear the city of Sunni Arab insurgents weeks before the operation began, allowing them to prepare elaborate defenses.

A number of rigged homes were also found in Diyala province in May and June, Loomis said, as U.S. forces stepped up operations against Sunni insurgents. During the previous Diyala operations some military officers referred to such homes as house-borne IEDs.

In the past, when such homes were discovered before they detonated, Air Force fighter planes were used to destroy them.

On Sunday, soldiers south of Baqubah spotted suspected insurgents with grenade launchers and assault rifles unrolling wire around a building. U.S.-led forces launched a Hellfire missile at the building, then dropped two bombs on it.

Secondary blasts, and wire discovered at the site, confirmed that the building had been rigged with explosives, U.S. military officials said.

On Wednesday, U.S. and Iraqi forces combed isolated villages, dense orchards and palm groves.

Mortar rounds crashed through thick foliage ahead of the advance through the agriculturally rich area, known as the breadbasket of Iraq.

In Sinsil Tharia, curious villagers gathered to watch soldiers from the 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, roll in with their armored vehicles. Families greeted the troops with offers of tea and sodas as they went door-to-door searching for insurgents and weapons.

"There is no security," one man told the soldiers, as he cradled his daughter in his arms. "We are afraid to go out, and we expect to be killed at any moment."

Residents said they hadn't seen masked gunmen who had been a common sight in their village before the offensive began. But the mayor warned that some insurgents still lurked among them.

U.S. commanders said they believed senior insurgent leaders had fled the region before the offensive, but that as many as 200 lower-level fighters could be hiding among the population.

Soldiers trudging through villages laced with canals said they were encountering much less fighting than they had expected.

U.S. soldiers handed out pamphlets urging residents to form volunteer groups to help defend their areas from insurgent groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq, a mostly local organization that the military says is foreign-led.

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