Marine Battalion Loses 14 in Second Deadly Attack
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A Marine battalion based in Ohio is mourning the loss of 14 of their own, killed today by a bomb in Iraq's Anbar province. It's the battalion's second loss in three days. On Monday, six other Marines died in the same area. We'll check in on the Cleveland suburb where the battalion is based in just a minute, but first to Baghdad, where Philip Reeves reports.
PHILIP REEVES reporting:
Scarcely a day passes in Iraq's Sunni triangle without bombings, kidnappings, suicide attacks and assassinations. It's the epicenter of a war that's been going on for more than two years. More than 1,800 Americans have lost their lives, and so have many more Iraqis. For the US forces fighting Sunni-led insurgents in and around the rundown, dirt-poor Sunni towns that stretch along the western reaches of the Euphrates River, today was bloodier than most. Army Brigadier General Carter Ham, who's director of regional operations on the Joint Staff, briefly outlined events to a Pentagon press conference.
Brigadier General CARTER HAM (Joint Staff): This morning at about 0630 local time in Iraq, a mounted US Marine element operating near Hadithah was attacked by an explosive device. Initial reports are that 15 personnel were killed in the attack, 14 United States Marines and one interpreter.
REEVES: The bombing of the Marines' armored vehicle was the latest installment in a fight that's been off and on in Anbar province for months. The US military believes the Euphrates River Valley is a conduit for Iraqi insurgents and militants coming in from Syria, about 70 miles to the west. The US military has launched several big offensives to flush them out, and now another's under way. Large swaths of land have been cordoned off by US forces, a factor which General Ham believes may have contributed to the recent increase in the number of insurgent attacks.
Brig. Gen. HAM: Well, now because of the simultaneity of operations that Multinational Force West is conducting, they don't have that freedom of movement. And I think that's one of the contributing causes to the number of direct contacts that are occurring.
REEVES: One of those `direct contacts' occurred Monday when six Marines from the same battalion were killed in the same area. The US military in Iraq has only given the barest of details. It says five of the Marines, who were part of a sniper unit, were on foot when they came under insurgent fire. The body of a sixth was recovered more than a mile away, and a seventh died in a suicide bomb in the town of Hit.
Today, two days after that event, Lawrence Di Rita, a top Defense Department public affairs officials, was still unable to supply details of how the six were killed and fended off questions from the Pentagon press corps.
Mr. LAWRENCE DI RITA (Defense Department Official): We're 8,000 miles away. The commanders there are doing their very best to understand it. Believe me, they're as interested as you in understanding it.
Unidentified Reporter: I was just wondering if we could get an update.
Mr. DI RITA: There's just--we've provided what information we can. We could spend a lot of time saying, `We don't have much more for you,' or we can maybe move on to a different topic because I just don't think we can add any more knowledge to what we've already provided to you.
REEVES: Hours later insurgents provided details of their own.
(Soundbite of video)
Group of People: (Singing in foreign language)
REEVES: Video posted on a handful of Web sites with links to Ansar al-Sunna, a militant Islamist group, which has now claimed responsibility for the attack. It's filmed with a shaky, handheld camera, but the image is clear: a dead US Marine. At one point a hand reaches down and cuts off his dog tag with a hacksaw. This then appears with other trophies, including a handful of machine guns and sniper rifles.
The 14 Marines who died today were killed by what the military calls an improvised explosive device, or IED. This term generally refers to roadside bombs, although this one appears to have been particularly powerful. General Ham says the number of IED attacks has been going down, but he adds...
Brig. Gen. HAM: We are seeing larger amounts of explosives. We are seeing different techniques that are being used in an effort to counter the efforts of coalition and Iraqi security forces to protect folks while they are moving, different types of penetrators, different techniques of triggering the events.
REEVES: The increasing sophistication of the Sunni insurgency is not the only worry for US forces and their allies. Extremist Shiite groups are growing increasingly influential and violent in the relatively quiet southern city of Basra. That issue was taken up by Steven Vincent, an American free-lance journalist and writer. Last week The New York Times published an opinion piece in which he alleged links between Basra's British-trained and equipped police and Shiite extremists. Last night Vincent and his interpreter were abducted. She was severely wounded; he was shot dead and dumped on the side of a road leading out of town. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.