Two American soldiers were killed and nine were injured Tuesday when a man wearing an Iraqi army uniform opened fire on them in an Iraqi commando compound in the province of Salahuddin, an attack that highlighted the danger U.S. troops continue to face in Iraq despite the formal end of combat operations announced by President Obama last week.
The soldiers were members of a security detail guarding a U.S. company commander who was meeting with Iraqi security forces, according to a statement issued by the U.S. military. The military said it wasn’t clear whether the assailant was an Iraqi soldier, but Iraqi and Kurdish officials said the shooting occurred after an altercation between the American soldiers and a Kurdish Iraqi soldier.
The attacker was shot and killed by an American soldier, the U.S. military said.
Alaa Ahmed, a colleague of the shooter, said the man opened fire on the Americans during a dispute over a volleyball game, an account confirmed by a senior Kurdish official who asked to remain anonymous.
U.S. military spokesman Maj. Lee Peters said he could not confirm that account.
Meanwhile, Gen. Hussein Rashid Bayati, the police commander in the town of Tuz Khurmatu, where the shooting occurred, said a soldier opened fire without provocation on the Americans in a hall where they were meeting with Iraqi commanders.
The two deaths were the first U.S. casualties in Iraq since Obama’s Aug. 31 address to the nation on the end of combat operations. But it was the second time U.S. troops had been caught up in violence in the last week, underscoring the reality that they are not out of harm’s way.
On Sunday, U.S. troops joined Iraqi forces to battle seven insurgents attempting to storm an Iraqi army headquarters in downtown Baghdad with bombs and automatic weapons. At least 18 people died in the suicide attack, including six of the insurgents. There were no American casualties.
This latest incident did not fit the pattern of insurgent attacks that have continued to plague Baghdad and some other parts of the country, despite a sharp reduction in violence that began three years ago. Tuz Khurmatu, about 110 miles north of Baghdad, is populated mostly by ethnic Turkmens and Kurds. The Iraqi military base is controlled by Kurds, normally known for their support for the U.S. presence.
The assailant was identified as Soran Abdul Rahman Antar.
Ahmed, the colleague, described him as religiously inclined and well-mannered. “What he did was a surprise to everyone,” he said.
The commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo, said it was an isolated act of violence.
“This is a tragic and cowardly act, which I firmly believe was an isolated incident and is certainly not reflective of the Iraqi security forces in Salahuddin,” he said.
The 50,000 American personnel who remain in Iraq are combat troops, but they are assigned to what are known as “advise and assist” brigades aiding Iraqi security forces. Mostly, however, their job consists of providing protection to the small teams of advisors and experts assigned to work with Iraqi security forces.
U.S. casualties in Iraq have become relatively rare compared with earlier years of fighting. The biggest danger to U.S. troops continues to come from roadside bombs targeting convoys, as well as rocket fire aimed at U.S. bases.
Tuesday’s deaths brought to 20 the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq in hostile incidents this year, and to 4,418 the total who have died in Iraq since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Mohammed is a Times staff writer.
Times staff writer Asso Ahmed in Sulaymaniya and a special correspondent in Kirkuk contributed to this report.