The bodies of two U.S. soldiers who had disappeared while on guard duty three days earlier were found just west of here Saturday, ending an intensive search and with it, hope that they would be rescued.
The deaths were the latest reported in a dispiriting week as U.S. and British forces came under sporadic attack throughout Iraq. The violence, which left six Americans and six Britons dead, ranged from execution-style shootings at a crowded Baghdad street market to mob violence in southern Iraq.
The Army confirmed the identities of the two soldiers found Saturday as Sgt. 1st Class Gladimir Philippe, 37, of Linden, N.J., and Pfc. Kevin C. Ott, 27, of Columbus, Ohio. They were assigned to the 18th Field Artillery Regiment of Ft. Sill, Okla.
They disappeared Wednesday night while patrolling on regular guard duty at a captured munitions storage depot about 20 miles north of Baghdad. After they failed to respond to a routine radio call, the military launched a large air and ground search for the men.
Military officials would not comment on the condition of the bodies, the details of their discovery or any indication whether the men had been held prisoner before their deaths.
After a series of house-to-house searches throughout the area where the soldiers were last seen, U.S. troops arrested four people at 3 p.m. Friday and found the missing soldiers’ Humvee half an hour later. Some personal items were recovered. Eight more Iraqis were detained for possible involvement in the incident.
The depot the men were guarding is in an area that had been a stronghold of Fedayeen paramilitary forces loyal to ousted leader Saddam Hussein.
People in Taji, a village a mile or so north of the Tigris River set on a bucolic landscape of irrigated fields and palm trees, did little Saturday to indicate that their loyalties had changed.
Residents said the two bodies were found west of here, next to an area of “storehouses.” Some said the soldiers had been kidnapped near the Tigris River; others said they had been abducted near the warehouses where they were found.
“They intimidated us; they searched our houses. They aren’t here to help us. They are occupiers,” said one older man, who, like other villagers here, declined to be identified.
The area is made up, predominantly, of members of the Halabsa, a very conservative tribe. One man, about 30 years old, said: “Nobody else is going to kick them out for us. We will do it. We will do operations every day.”
Asked where the bodies of the dead Americans could be found, he responded with an insult. “Go look in the garbage dump!”
In a separate incident that has further strained already tense U.S.-Syrian relations, Pentagon officials rejected reports that the Defense Department had delayed the release of five Syrian border guards. The guards were detained after a firefight with U.S. troops who crossed into Syrian territory while chasing a convoy of suspected Iraqi leaders last week. The U.S. Central Command will return the guards to Syria without further action “soon,” defense officials said.
“We’ve decided that these guys are going back, and now it’s just a matter of working out the details,” said Lawrence DiRita, a senior aide to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the Pentagon’s top spokesman.
Military officials have offered little information on the incident other than to say that they had reliable intelligence that senior Iraqi leaders were fleeing to Syria, but a U.S. official with knowledge of the attack on the convoy said it appears to have been a group of sheep smugglers. The U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said U.S. troops fired first on the Syrians and blew up a Syrian vehicle, prompting the border guards to return fire.
The State Department, the official said, has wanted the Syrian soldiers to be returned to Damascus, but the Pentagon has delayed handing them over.
Syrian Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Fayssal Mekdad said that Damascus had summoned the senior U.S. diplomat in Damascus Thursday and demanded that Washington explain what happened during the border incursion and that it return the five guards.
They have had no response since then.
Pentagon officials blamed bureaucratic red tape for keeping the guards from their homeland.
McDermott and Tobar reported from Baghdad. Times staff writers John Hendren and Robin Wright in Washington and Maggie Farley in New York contributed to this report.