Two U.S. soldiers were killed and three were injured in a shootout Monday outside a local council building southeast of Baghdad, the military said.
News of the attack came as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki promised to extend a military crackdown to Diyala province, north and east of the capital, after at least 25 people were killed and scores injured there Sunday in a suicide bombing and mortar fire.
A gunman ambushed the soldiers and their interpreter, who was wounded in the exchange, as they left the Madaen municipal building, the U.S. military said in a statement.
The Interior Ministry in Baghdad identified the gunman as a local official and said he emerged from the building with the Americans, pulled a Kalashnikov assault rifle from the trunk of his car and sprayed them with bullets. The man’s colleagues sought cover as the Americans returned fire and killed him, according to the ministry, which oversees the police.
But witnesses said the assailant was a former council member who joined the Sunni Muslim insurgency after he was ousted from his job in sectarian fighting in 2006.
“He was sitting in his vehicle right in front of the municipal headquarters and opened fire with a Kalashnikov on the Americans as they were leaving the building,” said the owner of a nearby farm equipment store, who asked to be identified by a traditional nickname, Abu Ali. “Other Americans immediately opened fire on [the man] in his car, and he was killed instantly.”
Khalid Dulaimi was in his grocery store across the street from the building when gunshots rang out. “I heard the shooting, and people started scrambling,” he said.
U.S. forces sealed off the area, and military helicopters swooped in to pick up the wounded, police and witnesses said.
Maj. John Hall, a U.S. military spokesman, said initial reports indicated one “enemy” had been killed in addition to the U.S. casualties, but provided no further details.
At least 4,104 U.S. troops have died since the Iraq war began in March 2003, according to the website icasualties.org.
Madaen, 15 miles southeast of Baghdad, is in a region frequented by Sunni and Shiite Muslim extremists that became known as the “triangle of death.”
Although the number of attacks nationwide has dropped to a level last seen in 2004, U.S. and Iraqi officials have warned that militants remain capable of inflicting casualties.
At least 15 people were killed and 40 injured Sunday when a woman blew herself up at the civic center in Baqubah, Diyala’s capital, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.
Hours later, a volley of mortar fire slammed into a checkpoint manned by Sunni Arab tribesmen hired by the U.S. military to guard their areas against militants. Police said at least 10 people were killed and 24 injured in that attack, which took place north of Baqubah.
The U.S. military poured troops into Diyala last year to drive out Sunni militants who had made Baqubah the capital of their self-declared caliphate. But even though the militants no longer control large swaths of territory there, it has proved difficult to dislodge them from the lush region of orchards and waterways stretching from Baghdad to the Iranian border.
Maliki promised Monday to finish the job in Diyala, speaking in the southern city of Amarah, where Iraqi forces began a crackdown against Shiite militiamen Thursday. The operation in Amarah is part of a push to assert government authority in areas controlled by Shiite and Sunni armed factions.
“This government confronted the gangs, the outlaws, the former regime thugs and Al Qaeda . . . from Basra to Mosul and other sites,” Maliki said in comments broadcast on state television. “Today [we are] in Amarah, and tomorrow we will complete the mission of our armed forces in Diyala.”
Special correspondents in Baghdad and Cairo contributed to this report.