US confirms body is of captured soldier

BAGHDAD (AFP) — The US military confirmed on Thursday that a body found floating in the Euphrates was one of three American soldiers snatched by Al Qaeda 12 days earlier, as a bomb attack hit civilian mourners at a funeral in western Iraq. Lieutenant Colonel Josslyn Aberle of US command in Baghdad said a body found on Wednesday had been identified as Private Joseph Anzack, and that the hunt for his missing comrades would continue unabated.

Meanwhile, a car bomb exploded at the funeral of the murdered nephew of a tribal leader in the Fallujah. State television put the death toll at 25, while US forces gave an initial estimate of between 10 and 15.

The deaths dealt another blow to the US war effort at a critical moment in Washington, with Congress due to vote on a $100 billion bill to fund the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns and $20 billion in domestic spending.

The Democratic majority in Congress is angry the bill contains no deadline for US troop withdrawal, but after an earlier version was vetoed by President George W. Bush it is expected to vote grudgingly to authorise the money.

Thousands of US soldiers continued to scour an area of palm groves and canals south of Baghdad, now looking for just two missing soldiers — Private Byron Fouty and Specialist Alex Jiminez.

On May 12, insurgents wiped out a small unit manning a temporary observation post near Qarghuli village outside MahmOudiyah, killing four soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter.

Reinforcements arrived to find more three soldiers missing, and an Al Qaeda front organisation, the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq,” later boasted that it had kidnapped the men.

On Wednesday, Iraqi police found the body of an American soldier in the Euphrates River downstream of Mahmoudiyah at Mussayib in a region notorious as the “Triangle of Death” insurgent stronghold.

Captain Muthanna Hassan of the Iraqi police in Mussayib, 55 kilometres south of Baghdad, said the corpse was in US uniform and had been shot several times in the back of the head, execution-style.

Aberle firmly denied “false reports” in the Iraqi media that US forces had found two more bodies at a dam downstream of Mussayib.

Also on Wednesday, two more US soldiers were killed in western Iraq, bringing the US death toll for the month so far to 88 and keeping May on track to be one of the military’s bloodiest since the war began.

These two confirmed fatalities and Anzack’s death brought the total number of US troops known to have died in Iraq since the US invasion of March 2003 to 3,436, according to an AFP tally based on Pentagon reports.

The rapidly rising toll came at an emotional moment for an American public already turning against Bush’s strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan, where troops have been deployed for years with little sign of imminent victory.

Memorial Day, this weekend, is when Americans remember their war dead, and this year they will do so against a background of fierce controversy.

On Wednesday, Bush attempted to rally support by again seeking to link the battle in Iraq to his “War on Terror”, touting newly declassified evidence that Al-Qaeda wants to use Iraq as a base for attacks on the United States.

“Victory in Iraq is important for Osama Ben Laden. And victory in Iraq is vital for the United States,” he said, referring to the network’s leader.

But more than four years since a US-led invasion force swept into Iraq, that case is proving harder and harder to make.

A May 9 USA Today/Gallup poll said that 59 per cent of US voters want a deadline to withdraw US troops from Iraq and that only 22 per cent accept Bush’s argument that their presence prevents new terrorist attacks.

Fallujah residents told AFP by telephone that the bomb there targeted mourners paying their respects to Ali Ahmed Zuwail, the nephew of tribal leader Abdul Razeq Issawi, who was shot dead on Wednesday.

Estimates of the death toll varied widely, but US soldiers at a nearby base said that initial reports put the figure at between 10 and 15, all civilians.

Al Qaeda-backed militants in Fallujah are locked in deadly combat with the local police and tribal levies, waging a campaign of assassination and intimidation.

Insurgents also destroyed an oil well near the northern city of Kirkuk early on Thursday, triggering a blaze that could rage for weeks, security and oil industry officials said.

South of Kirkuk, in a predominantly ethnic Turkmen region, a roadside bomb hit the motorcade of a local mayor, killing six bodyguards.

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