BAGHDAD (AP) â€” Iraqi police dragged a body from the Euphrates River on Wednesday and said it was one of three American soldiers abducted in an ambush claimed by Al Qaeda. The US military has yet to identify the victim and pressed ahead with its search through sweltering flatlands south of Baghdad.
American forces also disclosed nine more deaths, raising to 20 the number of US troops killed in four days. Nationwide at least 104 people were killed in sectarian violence or found dead Wednesday, including 32 who perished in separate suicide bombings, 100 kilometres west of the capital and a second in a city to the east near the Iranian border.
In the search for three US soldiers ambushed and captured May 12, thousands of US and Iraqi forces have trudged in temperatures above 110 Fahrenheit through desert and lush farmland southwest of Baghdad, sometimes wading in sewage-polluted irrigation ditches. Four other troopers and an Iraqi were killed in the ambush, subsequently claimed by Al Qaeda.
Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, chief US military spokesman in Iraq, told reporters that US authorities took custody of the body found Wednesday but had not determined if it was one of the missing soldiers.
“Iraqi police did find the body of a man whom they believe may be one of our missing soldiers,” Caldwell said. “We have received the body and we will work diligently to determine if he is in fact one of our missing soldiers.” Iraqi police using civilian boats searched for other bodies on the river in Musayyib, about 60 kilometres south of Baghdad, and US troops intensified their presence on a nearby bridge as helicopters flew overhead, witnesses said.
Hassan Al Jibouri, 32, said he saw the body with head wounds and whip marks on its back floating on the river Wednesday morning. He and others then alerted police.
A senior Iraqi army officer in the Babil area told the Associated Press that the body was that of an American soldier. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the media. One report said the body bore a tattoo on the left hand.
On Wednesday afternoon, police in Babil province reported they had discovered two more bodies in the river and suspected they were American soldiers. Caldwell, however, confirmed the discovery of only one body and said he hoped all three soldiers would be found alive.
“We are going to continue searching for our three missing soldiers,” he said.
The military has warned that US casualties were likely to increase as troops made more frequent patrols during the US-led security crackdown in Baghdad, now in its fourth month.
The captured soldiers are Pfc. Joseph J. Anzack Jr., 20, of Torrance, Calif., Spc. Alex R. Jimenez, 25, of Lawrence, Mass., and Pvt. Byron W. Fouty, 19, of Waterford, Mich.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, meanwhile, announced he was ready to fill six Cabinet seats vacated by politicians loyal to radical anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr in a mass resignation last month.
Sadr, who went into hiding in Iran at the start of the Baghdad security crackdown, ordered his ministers to quit the government over Maliki’s refusal to call for a timetable for US withdrawal.
The deaths of the seven soldiers and two Marines in a series of attacks Monday and Tuesday brought the American death toll for the month to at least 80. Last month, 104 US troops were killed in Iraq.
One of Wednesday’s suicide bombings hit a cafe in the town of Mandali, on the Iranian border 100 kilometres east of Baghdad. The attacker walked into the packed cafe and blew himself up, killing 22 people and wounding 13 others, police said.
The cafe in the mixed Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish city, was usually frequented by police, but no police officers were there at the time, police said. Police said a man of in his 30s wearing a heavy jacket despite the heat was seen walking into the cafe just seconds before the blast.
In the second suicide assault, the bomber blew himself up in the house of two brothers who were supporting a Sunni alliance opposed to Al Qaeda in the Anbar province, killing 10 people, including the men, their wives and children, police Lt. Col. Jabar Rasheed Nayef said.
The attacker, a 17-year-old neighbour, broke into the house of the two men, Sheikh Mohammad Ali and police Lt. Col. Abed Ali, and detonated his bomb belt late Tuesday in Albo Obaid, about 100 kilometres west of Baghdad.
The targeted men were part of the Anbar Salvation Council, a group of local Sunni tribal leaders backing the government’s fight against Al Qaeda.
In Washington, National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said US and Iraqi officials were planning to again increase the number of Iraqi security forces to help quell violence in the country.
The review was undertaken as President Bush’s new military-political team in Iraq â€” commander Gen. David Petraeus and US Ambassador Ryan Crocker â€” assessed strategy for the four-year-old war.