Five U.S. soldiers died in a roadside bomb blast Monday as fighting raged in Mosul, a northern city identified by Iraqi and American officials as a key hub for Sunni militants.
Soon after the troops’ vehicle blew up, unidentified men in a Mosul mosque sprayed gunfire at the rest of the unit, which returned fire, the U.S. Army said in a statement.
Iraqi soldiers stormed the mosque, but the gunmen had fled, according to the statement. The battle lasted nearly an hour, police said. At least 3,940 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq since 2003, according to icasualties.org, a website that keeps an unofficial tally of American military deaths.
Thirty-six U.S. soldiers have died this month, up from 23 in December, but still a major decline from the first half of 2007, when more than 100 deaths were recorded monthly from April through June. Six of those killed this month died in a booby-trapped house in Diyala province, northeast of the capital.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have called Mosul the last urban bastion of Al Qaeda in Iraq after largely quelling violence from the group in Baghdad and the Anbar and Diyala provinces. In November 2004, Sunni Arab insurgents briefly overran the northern city. Many veterans of the late dictator Saddam Hussein’s army reside in Mosul and are believed to have lent their expertise to Sunni fighters opposed to the new U.S.-backed government.
U.S. military spokesman Rear Adm. Greg Smith on Jan. 20 labeled Mosul the one Iraqi city that remains “a center of influence” for Sunni radicals. Three thousand U.S. troops are stationed in the region around Mosul, which is home to 1.7 million people and is fraught with tensions between Arabs and Kurds.
“Mosul was used for a long time as a hub between the Syrian borders and the rest of Iraq. It is also a province with a contentious ethnic fault line with the Kurdistan regional government,” said Iraq’s national security advisor, Mowaffak Rubaie.
Additional Iraqi tanks and aircraft arrived in Mosul on Sunday as Iraqi officials vowed to root out Al Qaeda in Iraq after a booby-trapped building exploded Wednesday. Initial reports said 34 people died in the blast, but an Iraqi Red Crescent Organization report released over the weekend said 60 had been killed. A suicide bomber killed the police chief of Nineveh province Thursday.
Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed Askari said the Iraqi army and police in Mosul had made tactical blunders in the last year. “The army and police were not present in the streets at night. That gave the terrorists the ability to do whatever they wanted,” Askari said.
The Iraqi army and police are being put under a unified command, one similar to the model used for security forces in Baghdad and Diyala province, where offensives have diluted Al Qaeda in Iraq’s influence, Askari said.
In Baghdad, a fire broke out in the offices of the Iraqi central bank Monday morning, damaging four floors before it was extinguished. One bank official blamed the blaze on faulty electrical wiring. The official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, said any documents or data that were lost had been backed up electronically.
Iraqi parliament member Nouriddin Hiali, from the main Sunni political bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, said he suspected arson and contended that it was an attempt to destroy evidence of government corruption. Police said the blaze was under investigation.
The fire engulfed the third through the sixth floors, where the bank governor’s offices and the institution’s archives are located.
In other developments, a man reported dead by the Interior Ministry on Sunday was later found to have survived and been hospitalized, medical officials said. The man and three of his relatives were attacked during the weekend. His uncle, a former member of Hussein’s Baath Party, an aunt and a female cousin were beheaded. The man was severely wounded and was under heavy guard, the officials said.
The parliament met Monday but postponed a vote on the country’s 2008 budget as well as the provincial powers legislation, which would define the relationship between the national government and individual provinces. The legislation is seen as a necessary hurdle on the way to long-delayed provincial elections.
Times staff writers Saif Rasheed, Said Rifai and Caesar Ahmed in Baghdad and special correspondents in Mosul contributed to this report.