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U.S. Soldiers' Disappearance Is Still Shrouded in Mystery
Several Others Wounded in Bold Attacks in Iraq
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 28, 2003; Page A01
BALAD, Iraq, June 27 -- U.S. forces searched today for two missing soldiers who they suspect were abducted by Iraqis, as continuing ambushes raised new concerns that opponents of the U.S.-led occupation are acting with ever-greater boldness.
The disappearance Wednesday of two soldiers from the 17th Forward Artillery Brigade, headquartered at a former Iraqi air force base here, remained shrouded in mystery even as new details emerged today. The soldiers, whose names and ranks have not been released, disappeared during daylight hours along with their Humvee, the object of a massive air and ground search.
The U.S. military said it was interrogating three Iraqis in connection with the disappearance of the service members.
Meanwhile, in northwestern Baghdad, witnesses told reporters that a U.S. soldier shopping for video discs on a city sidewalk was shot in the neck by an unknown assailant today. A military spokesman said the soldier, a civil affairs specialist, was in critical condition at a combat support hospital, news services reported.
Just northwest of Baghdad this morning, a U.S. Army truck was hit by an explosive device on a dirt road, according to the Associated Press. A U.S. soldier and a witness said wounded Americans were evacuated by helicopter. In another incident, two soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division were wounded tonight when they came under rocket-propelled grenade attack while traveling in their Humvee in Baqubah, 30 miles northeast of Baghdad, the AP said.
On Thursday, an assailant killed an American soldier who was investigating a car theft in Najaf, the Shiite Muslim holy city about 90 miles south of Baghdad, according to U.S. Central Command. Central Command was still providing no details about Thursday's killing of a Special Operations soldier and the wounding of eight others.
The missing soldiers being sought near Balad, 50 miles northwest of Baghdad, had been manning an observation post on the perimeter of a munitions demolition site outside of town. A spokesman for their unit said the two were alone but within several hundred yards of other troops. When their unit tried to contact them later Wednesday on their radios, there was no response. There were reports of a sandstorm when the possible abduction occurred.
"We don't know whether they were taken under duress or left the area of their own volition," said Capt. Jeff Fitzgibbon, an Army spokesman. One U.S. Army commander in the Balad region said that if the missing soldiers were kidnapped, "my fear is that they were either taken away and shot immediately, or they are going to appear on Arabic TV as hostages in the next 24 hours."
The missing soldiers would have been armed with M-16 automatic rifles and sidearms. Their Humvee was equipped with radios but apparently not with the global positioning device that helps U.S. forces track vehicles' movements around Iraq. "They have secure military radios" in their Humvee, Fitzgibbon said, "but either they can't use it or have chosen not to."
One U.S. military spokesman said blood was found at the scene, but that could not be confirmed.
"It is a very disturbing event," said Lt. Col. Andy Fowler, the commander of a cavalry unit based in Balad.
A military policeman in Balad said the possible abduction of troops is "making the guys nervous. We're used to getting shot at. But grabbed? Lord, that is something scary."
Military officials said it was possible the two went AWOL -- some soldiers in Iraq interrupt their routines for a quick stop for cold sodas or a pack of cigarettes -- but called it highly unlikely that they would vanish without a trace unless they had been abducted.
In the southern city of Majar al-Kabir, meanwhile, where six British troops and at least five Iraqis were killed Tuesday in clashes between soldiers and rioters, a British airplane dropped leaflets stating: "We will not return to punish anyone since these are the methods of Saddam's regime. We will return to set up good relations with you because of our concern about a secure Iraq. . . . Don't let rumors ruin our good relations."