The U.S. military on Sunday announced the deaths of 14 soldiers in the last three days, a heavy toll that underscored the increased exposure of American forces as reinforcements push deeper into war-torn neighborhoods of Baghdad and outlying areas in a bid to flush out militants.
Northeast of the Iraqi capital, a car bomb exploded about 200 yards from the entrance of a U.S. military base, unleashing a noxious cloud of chlorine gas that sickened at least 62 soldiers but caused no injuries, the military said. All of those exposed returned to duty the same day.
The use of chlorine to turn an ordinary bomb into a chemical weapon has become a signature tactic of insurgents fighting U.S. and Iraqi forces in Al Anbar province, west of Baghdad. But Sunday’s attack was believed to be the first time the method was used in Diyala province.
At least 62 Iraqis were found dead or reported killed in bomb blasts, gunfights and other violence across the country, including a priest and three bishops slain by gunmen in the northern city of Mosul.
U.S. officials had warned that an increase in American casualties was likely during the troop buildup that began in mid-February. A key part of the plan is the establishment of joint security stations with Iraqi police and soldiers in many of Baghdad’s most troubled sections and increased visibility in the streets.
The military had previously reported the death of at least one other U.S. soldier this month. At least 3,494 U.S. troops have died since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, according to the website icasualties.org, which tracks casualties.
Last month was the third deadliest so far for U.S. forces in Iraq, with 127 personnel reported killed.
Eight of the 14 U.S. soldiers whose deaths were reported Sunday died in bomb blasts in and around the capital in the last two days. Four were slain in an explosion Sunday during a search operation northwest of the capital, the military said.
In addition, two other soldiers were killed Saturday in roadside bombings in Diyala, and two died in similar attacks the same day in Nineveh province, north of Baghdad, the military said.
Southwest of the capital, a U.S. patrol attempted to question two suspicious people near a mosque Friday. As they approached, one of the men blew himself up, killing one soldier in the patrol, the military said. Another soldier was killed by small-arms fire Saturday while patrolling south of Baghdad.
A thick smell of chorine hung over Forward Operating Base Warhorse on the edge of Diyala’s capital, Baqubah, after Sunday’s attack. The 62 soldiers affected sought treatment for dizziness and nausea, said Maj. Raul Marquez, a military spokesman at the base. In high doses, chlorine gas can cause fatal lung damage.
Groups linked to Al Qaeda have used trucks laden with explosives and chlorine gas at least 10 times since January in their fight against Sunni Arab tribesmen who have joined forces with U.S. and Iraqi troops in Al Anbar. Iraqi police said the vehicle used in Sunday’s attack was a taxi, but the U.S. military could not immediately confirm that account.
An hour earlier, nine mortar rounds were fired at the base, injuring two soldiers. One soldier was hit by shrapnel in the forehead while getting a haircut at the barbershop before going on leave, the military said. Another suffered a gash to his hand.
The mortar barrage occurred during lunchtime, and some soldiers scrambled out of the mess hall for bunkers, while others continued eating.
Diyala, a religiously and ethnically mixed province that borders Iran, has suffered recurrent bloodshed since the start of the war. U.S. forces there are battling a complex mix of factions, including members of the late dictator Saddam Hussein’s military, foreign-led Al Qaeda forces, and Shiite Muslim militiamen, who the U.S. military says are backed by Iran.
U.S. officials believe militants fleeing the troop buildup in Baghdad and Al Anbar may be fueling a recent increase in attacks in Diyala. About 3,000 additional U.S. troops have been deployed to the province since the security crackdown was launched.
Among the attacks Sunday on Iraqis, a suicide car bomber killed at least 10 people and injured 30 others in a busy market area in Balad Ruz, about 30 miles east of Baqubah, said Col. Faris Hussein, the local police chief.
The bomber appeared to be targeting a police convoy that was transporting prisoners, he said. Two policemen were among those killed, and 10 cars, including six police vehicles, were set ablaze.
Earlier, gunmen opened fire on two minibuses at an apparently fake checkpoint on the outskirts of Baqubah, killing five passengers and injuring seven, police said. The victims were believed to be Shiite Muslim civilians traveling to Baghdad.
The Christian clerics were gunned down as they drove away together from the Church of the Holy Spirit in Mosul, a mostly Sunni Arab city with a significant number of minorities, including Christians, police said.
Police in Baghdad recovered the bodies of at least 31 men shot execution-style in an indication of continued sectarian violence.
American soldiers, meanwhile, detained 19 suspects for further questioning Sunday in the search for two of their comrades missing since a May 12 ambush southwest of Baghdad, the U.S. military said in a statement.
The search also continued for five British citizens seized last week in Baghdad.
Therolf reported from Baqubah and Zavis from Baghdad. Times staff writer Raheem Salman in Baghdad and special correspondents in Baghdad and Hillah contributed to this report.