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Iraqis gathered at a hospital in Sadr City yesterday after a minibus packed with explosives blew up in a busy section of Baghdad, killing 24 people.
Iraqis gathered at a hospital in Sadr City yesterday after a minibus packed with explosives blew up in a busy section of Baghdad, killing 24 people. (Karim Kadim/ Associated Press)

US suffering 3d-deadliest month in Iraq

10 more losses make toll worst since 2004

BAGHDAD -- The US military announced yesterday that 10 American soldiers were killed in Iraq on Memorial Day, making May the deadliest month for US troops in 2 1/2 years, as insurgents continued attacks on official and civilian targets.

Gunmen dressed in police uniforms staged a well-coordinated kidnapping at Iraq's Finance Ministry and abducted five people whom the British Foreign Office identified as British citizens. Two vehicle bombings in Baghdad left at least 44 people dead and 74 wounded. And the bodies of 32 men -- all shot and tortured, some handcuffed and blindfolded -- were found in two locations north and south of the capital yesterday, a senior Iraqi security official said.

US officials have warned that a strategy of putting more US troops on the streets and in small combat outposts, part of a new security plan launched in February, would lead to higher casualties at first . But yesterday's carnage suggested that the plan had not yet created a safer security environment.

Also, the complex operations launched against US and coalition forces Monday and yesterday demonstrated that the insurgency also is adopting more sophisticated tactics and weapons.

Eight of the US fatalities Monday occurred in the same attack: A US helicopter crashed in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, killing two soldiers, and insurgents then ambushed a rapid response team that was rushing to rescue them, killing another six with a barrage of roadside bombs, said Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver, a military spokesman.

"They are an adaptive, difficult enemy with an ability to change tactics to adapt to what's happening on the ground," Garver said. Similar ambush tactics were used in a kidnapping on May 12, he said, when insurgents attacked a US patrol, killing four soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter, and then were able to escape with three US soldiers as prisoners because the coalition's quick reaction teams encountered multiple roadside bombs that delayed them getting to the scene. One of the abducted soldiers was later found dead, and two are missing.

In the case of the helicopter crash, Garver said, it was unclear whether the roadside bombs were there beforehand, or were put in place there after the helicopter went down. He said the cause of the crash was under investigation.

Provincial police Captain Muhannad al-Bawi said the helicopter was shot down near Muqdadiyah, about 50 miles northeast of the capital. A spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq, a Sunni insurgent group with ties to Al Qaeda in Iraq, asserted responsibility for the downing in a telephone interview.

In recent months, Diyala has become one of Iraq's most restive provinces, as members of Al Qaeda in Iraq have expanded their operations there. About 3,000 troops from the new US build up were sent to Diyala to help quell the violence.

Most of the 28,500 additional troops being sent to Iraq are to be stationed in high-visibility posts in and around Baghdad, to heighten the sense of security and lower the rate of violence, US officials hope, although they say the new troop build up needs more time to prove whether it can be successful.

President Bush cited the higher-risk tactics in a news conference last week, saying, "We're going to expect heavy fighting in the weeks and months [ahead]. We can expect more American and Iraqi casualties."

"It could be a bloody -- it could be a very difficult August," he added.

"Generally speaking, we are operating with more troops on the ground, in more areas than before -- especially in places we haven't been before -- and that creates the potential for more contact between us and the enemy that can lead to more casualties," Garver said.

While the short-term risks of having so many more troops on the streets are high, Garver said, in the long run "that's going to bring more stability. Being out with the Iraqi forces and earning the confidence of the people will lead to better cooperation with the population and separate them from the insurgents and make sure they're on our side."

Two more soldiers were killed Monday by a roadside bomb in South Baghdad, the military reported.

With 115 fatalities, according to the website, May is the third deadliest month of the war. The most lethal months were November and April 2004, with 137 and 135 American fatalities respectively, when the US military launched two offensives against Sunni insurgents in the town of Fallujah, 25 miles west of Baghdad.

Meanwhile, the British Foreign office mobilized its crisis management task force, dubbed COBRA, to respond to the kidnapping of five British citizens from the Iraq Finance Ministry shortly before 9 a.m. yesterday.

Brigadier General Abdul Mareem Khalaf, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said the abductions occurred when 19 vehicles sped into the Finance Ministry compound in north Baghdad and launched a well-planned kidnapping operation. A second Interior Ministry official said the men in the vehicles were dressed in National Police uniforms.

Joe Gavaghan, a spokesman for GardaWorld, a Montreal-based security company, said in a telephone interview that four of the company's security guards and a client were abducted in the raid. A spokesman for the US consulting firm BearingPoint told the British Press Association that the client was one of their employees. An official familiar with kidnapping said the BearingPoint employee was a British national. None of the officials would identify the victims by name.

Details of the kidnapping were scanty.

According to news agencies, one victim, apparently the BearingPoint employee, was giving a lecture on electronic contracting in the Finance Ministry's computer science building when gunmen stormed in. The Associated Press reported that the group arrived in a long convoy of white sports utility vehicles of the sort often used by police in the capital.

Reuters news agency, quoting a witness, said the gunmen entered the lecture hall led by a man wearing a police major's uniform, yelling "Where are the foreigners?" They then took the five British men and fled.

Kidnappings of Iraqis, usually for ransom and sometimes by sectarian death squads, are an everyday happening in Iraq, occurring by some estimates as often as 30 to 40 times a day across the nation. But the kidnapping of foreigners -- most often government contractors, but sometimes journalists and international aid workers -- has gone in waves. About 300 foreigners have been abducted since the start of the war, and of those 54 were killed, 157 gained freedom, and the fate of 89 is unknown, according to the Brookings Institution's Iraq Index.

In recent months, however, the number of foreigners kidnapped in Iraq has dropped steeply. Only six had been kidnapped this year before yesterday's abductions.

Earlier yesterday, at least 24 people were killed and 51 were injured when a minibus exploded in a crowed commercial district in central Baghdad, said a senior Iraqi police official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name. The blast occurred in Tayaran Square, a bustling market and commercial area where Shi'ites frequently catch commuter buses to their jobs in Sadr City.

Later, a car bomb detonated by remote control exploded in the mixed Sunni Arab and Shi'ite neighborhood of Amil, in southeast Baghdad, killing 20 and injuring 23, he said.