Two U.S. soldiers were reported killed and five wounded in ambushes here Friday and in the holy city of Najaf a day earlier, while two other U.S. soldiers remained missing and were presumed guerrilla kidnapping victims.
With unrest continuing, the Pentagon announced Friday that it had dispatched a team of private consultants to Baghdad to advise U.S.-led reconstruction administrators. Defense officials in Washington denied that the move was triggered by dissatisfaction with the current rebuilding effort in Iraq.
The latest attack took place Friday night when a U.S. Army soldier was killed and four others wounded in Sadr City, a neighborhood of the capital. An interpreter was also injured, according to U.S. officials.
U.S. military officials in Baghdad said Friday that they lacked information to determine whether the rash of attacks -- among almost three dozen against U.S.-led occupation forces in the last week -- represented a coordinated effort.
Maj. William Thurmond, a spokesman for the Combined Joint Task Force in Baghdad, said the violence could amount to a collection of isolated incidents but also could be a reaction to the U.S. offensive known as Operation Desert Scorpion, which targets loyalists of the ousted Saddam Hussein government.
“There is every possibility these are bad actors who we flushed out into the open,” Thurmond said.
The operation’s raids have resulted in the confiscation of weapons and dozens of arrests, but they have also provoked vehement objections from Iraqis, even some who opposed Hussein.
Whatever the level of dismay, the attacks against U.S.-led troops in Iraq are unjustified, said Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim, a Shiite leader and former exile now based in the southern city of Najaf.
“Violence must be the last solution,” he told the Al Jazeera satellite TV channel. “The beginning must be negotiations and peaceful demonstrations.”
The U.S. Army on Friday detained three men suspected of being involved in the presumed kidnapping of the two soldiers, who disappeared with their Humvee north of Baghdad late Wednesday night. The soldiers -- from an artillery unit based at Ft. Sill, Okla. and identified Friday as Sgt. 1st Class Gladimir Philippe, 37, of Linden, N.J., and Pfc. Kevin Ott, 27, of Columbus, Ohio -- were guarding a depot of captured explosives and failed to respond to a routine radio call.
The soldiers, who had been stationed in Balad, were thought to have been abducted near Halabsa, a village just off the main highway -- and an area where Hussein’s paramilitary Fedayeen fighters once had a headquarters and where many residents are still loyal to the old regime.
Knots of young men crowded into thin strips of shade there Friday; most said they knew nothing of the ambush. But one man blurted to a reporter that the abduction was revenge for the jailing of two locals.
“We don’t like the Americans,” he said. “People are showing their resistance because [the troops] are going inside their homes.”
There has been no word on the fate of the men.
In Najaf, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, a U.S. soldier from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force was killed in an ambush Thursday while investigating a car theft, U.S. military officials said.
The soldier, whose name was withheld pending notification of his family, died before a medical evacuation unit arrived.
In northwestern Baghdad, a soldier was critically wounded in an ambush shortly before Friday afternoon prayers in the predominantly Shiite Muslim neighborhood of Kadhimiya, a place that had largely welcomed U.S. troops. At the time, the streets were thronged with people and merchants, less than a block from a mosque that holds a beloved local shrine to Imam Kadhim.
The soldier, a member of a civil affairs unit, left several members of his patrol in their truck and strolled up the street, stopping at a stand selling DVD movies. Finding a couple that he liked, the soldier reached in his pocket for money, said Amar Saad, a sidewalk salesman of radios and hair dryers.
Then Saad heard a gunshot.
“It was very near,” he said. “It was the sound when the bullet does not travel very far.
“I felt so sorry for this. He was very polite, a young man, and he was laughing and joking with us. He wasn’t one of the Americans who usually works in our neighborhood because we know all of them, he was just visiting.”
The soldier took a step and fell to the ground. Terrified, the crowd ran from the shrine.
“I ran because I was afraid that the soldier’s friends would come and shoot us,” said Ahmed Qasim, 24, who worked at the incense stand next door.
One witness was taken in for questioning, according to several sidewalk merchants, but they added that they thought the assailant was one of “Saddam’s people.”
“Who else -- he is from Saddam’s loyalists, Fedayeen. It is Saddam’s people organizing this,” Saad said.
Guerrilla attacks against the energy infrastructure -- pipelines, high-voltage power lines and individual power workers -- also continued to be felt throughout the country. Much of Baghdad was without power again this morning.
The Pentagon said a five-member team of civilian consultants arrived Friday in the capital to assess the rebuilding efforts and make recommendations to L. Paul Bremer III, the former State Department official in charge of postwar rebuilding in Iraq.
But officials in Washington denied that the move signaled any frustration with Bremer’s performance or broader efforts to bring stability to Iraq. Asked whether the group was being sent in to fix problems the Pentagon hadn’t anticipated, Larry DiRita, an advisor to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said it was “emphatically not.”
“This is a team of smart people from whom Bremer thinks he might get some useful advice,” DiRita said. “Bremer is doing a very difficult job very well.”
The new civilian team is led by John J. Hamre, a deputy secretary of defense in the Clinton administration and now president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a leading Washington think tank.
The center has produced a number of studies on postwar reconstruction efforts, including a report called “A Wiser Peace” -- published before the war in Iraq -- that recently caught Rumsfeld’s attention, officials said.
The study said the U.S. should have a detailed plan for postwar occupation, something critics have said the Bush administration didn’t have. Among other things, the report recommended that the U.S. assemble ahead of time international “civilian police” patrols and “justice teams” to help keep the peace in the war’s immediate aftermath.
DiRita said the advisors are expected to provide input on a host of topics, from plans for setting up an interim government to the deployments of troops for peacekeeping.
A spokesman for the Center for Strategic and International Studies said the team, which includes two representatives from other think tanks, is serving as an informal advisory panel, and won’t be paid for its work, although it will be reimbursed for travel and other expenses. He said the team is expected to spend a week and a half in Iraq before making recommendations to Bremer and Rumsfeld.
Andy Bearpark, a British rebuilding expert recently named director of operations for the reconstruction effort, said the spate of attacks on utilities that has resulted in power outages could best be characterized as temporary interruptions.
He said occupation authorities hoped to have the capacity to generate 4,000 megawatts of electricity by the end of July, up from current peaks of 3,100 but far short -- less than half -- of the power produced before the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Bearpark arrived in Iraq 10 days ago as part of another effort to relaunch the reconstruction effort in Iraq.
He said he was heartened by his tour of the country but counseled patience.
“Progress has been made,” he said. “I’m not a blind man, however. There are still problems. There are still big problems.”
Times staff writer Greg Miller in Washington and Times Wires Services contributed to this report .