Search Intensifies for Ambushed U.S. Soldiers Near Baghdad
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RAY SUAREZ: Ed, maybe we could begin with the latest from the U.S. military on their search for the missing service people.
EDWARD WONG, New York Times: Well, the U.S. military is saying that it’s putting a lot of resources into the search for the three missing men. They say that there are 4,000 troops involved in the search, that they’re sweeping through villages and towns that are south of Baghdad in this Euphrates River valley area.
And they’re using a lot of overhead resources. They’re putting out aircraft. They’re using surveillance drones, and they’re having a lot of helicopters fly over the area. It’s not an easy area to cover. There are a lot of palm groves in this area, in villages, as well as tributaries to the Euphrates River, and so they have a lot of work ahead of them.
RAY SUAREZ: Along with that high-tech surveillance I guess goes the more old-fashioned, door-to-door searching?
EDWARD WONG: That’s right. There are some areas where they’ve been going to houses. We understand that they’ve been arresting groups of people, questioning them. It’s very intense at the moment.
Yesterday, we heard reports that they have surrounded the town of Yusufiya, which is fairly rife with insurgents, and that they were not letting people in or out of the town, and that they were going house-to-house there, searching for the abductees.
Identifying the captors
RAY SUAREZ: They've been technically designated, these men, as "whereabouts unknown." But is the military proceeding on the assumption that they were captured by the same insurgents that attacked their unit?
EDWARD WONG: That's correct. That is the assumption right now. Of course, we don't know whether the men are alive. The Islamic State of Iraq, the group that has claimed responsibility for the attack, says that -- or hints that these men are alive. It released a message today telling the military not to proceed with the searches and telling the military that they'll never see these men again.
But the assumption is that the same group that carried out the attack on the vehicles, which we hear are Humvees, is the same group that took these men.
RAY SUAREZ: What's known about the Islamic State of Iraq? Tell us more about the group.
EDWARD WONG: Well, the group is an umbrella group that includes al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, and the understanding is that it's a mostly Iraqi group. There is a myth out there that says a lot of this violence is being perpetrated by foreigners, by people coming from outside Iraq, but all our sources tell us that it's mostly Iraqis and that they're carrying out this violence for different purposes. But most members of this group are believed to be very religious, very militant people.
Revisiting the attack
RAY SUAREZ: Let's go back to the weekend and the time of the attack. What was that American unit doing in that area near Mahmoudiya? And why were American forces there in such small numbers?
EDWARD WONG: We've seen and heard conflicting reports. There are some reports that say that they were moving, that they were part of a larger group that was moving, and that they were -- this particular vehicle was incapacitated by a roadside bomb, this vehicle and another one, and then that was when the ambush with gunfire occurred.
We don't know exactly why these two vehicles were somehow left isolated from other soldiers. The military's report says that soldiers in the area heard the explosion, so there were other people in the area, but they couldn't get back to these two vehicles quickly enough.
And there's one report that says that's because there were other roadside bombs in the area. And the vehicles that were elsewhere had a tough time getting safely back to the two vehicles that were under attack.
There's also an indication that the vehicles might not have been moving, that they might have been stationary, maybe doing what's called over-watch, just trying to secure that spot and making sure that insurgents weren't active there.
'A fairly rare occurrence'
RAY SUAREZ: People who've been following the news of the war since the U.S. invasion of Iraq may realize that there have been very few stories involving Americans who have been taken prisoner by various Iraqi forces or insurgents. Has this been a common occurrence? And what's happened in the past when American troops have been captured?
EDWARD WONG: It's been a fairly rare occurrence. And, in the past, when troops have been captured, it's usually ended fairly badly. In almost all cases, the troops have ended up dead. In many cases, the military has found their bodies again, afterwards at some point, and proclaimed them dead.
There's at least one case I know of where the soldier is still classified as missing, because they have not found his body, even though there's videotape that purportedly shows him being shot in the head.
Now, one of the last kidnappings took place earlier this winter in Karbala, when four American soldiers were kidnapped, and then they were later killed. And this was supposedly by a Shiite militia group.
Then, around a year ago, in the exact same area where these three latest soldiers were kidnapped, two American soldiers were kidnapped from their vehicle. And they quickly turned up dead. They were found a few days later, and their bodies had been mutilated and had been booby-trapped with explosives.
RAY SUAREZ: The American general who's the spokesman for the forces, General Caldwell, said, "We will never stop looking for our soldiers until their status is definitively determined." Does that mean that 4,000 men, plus aerial assets, will be continuing this search for as long as it takes?
EDWARD WONG: I don't think that they'll be able to continue to deploy so many forces on a search for an extended period of time. It takes a lot of energy, a lot of resources to do this.
Plus, I think that those forces will be needed to carry forward with the security plans that the military is trying to put in place in different parts of Iraq. The Baghdad security plan is the central focus of the American military effort right now, and the Americans need as many troops as they can inside the city of Baghdad to try and carry out that plan.
RAY SUAREZ: Ed Wong joining us from Baghdad. Good to talk to you, Ed.
EDWARD WONG: Thanks, Ray.