BAGHDAD, Iraq – A roadside bomb killed three U.S. soldiers south of Baghdad on Friday, and coalition forces fatally shot three insurgents in Samarra, a city where the bombing of a Shiite shrine in February set off a wave of sectarian killings in Iraq.
The violence came as a videotape showing the most wanted terrorist in Iraq wearing American tennis shoes and struggling to fire a U.S.-made machine gun was seen on television across the country on Friday as many Iraqis began their weekend.
The video — released Thursday by the U.S. military as part of a propaganda war aimed at undercutting the image of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — was repeatedly shown on Iraqi state television and pan-Arab satellite TV Al-Arabiya.
It was strikingly different from video posted last month on Islamist Web sites showing a stocky al-Zarqawi, head of Al Qaeda in Iraq, confidently firing bursts from the weapon like an experienced jihadist fighter.
But the U.S. military said the images were all from the same video.
• Click here to watch the Zarqawi video.
The U.S. command provided few details about the roadside bomb that killed three U.S. Army soldiers in Babil province south of Baghdad on Friday.
But Babil Police Capt. Muthana Khalid said the explosion heavily damaged a Humvee in a U.S. military convoy at about 11:30 a.m. near Mahaweel city, 35 miles south of Baghdad. He said two American soldiers were immediately killed and one was seriously wounded and evacuated for medical treatment.
The attack raised to at least 2,414 the number of members of the U.S. military who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Elsewhere, U.S. and Iraqi forces clamped a curfew in Samarra on Friday as they searched homes looking for insurgents, police Capt. Laith Mohammed said.
On Thursday, U.S. Army soldiers detained three suspected insurgents carrying roadside bombs in Samarra, then killed three other militants who opened fire on the American forces from the roof of a nearby building, the U.S. military said. An Iraqi citizen was wounded in the crossfire, but the American forces suffered no casualties, the military said.
Samarra was the site of the Feb. 22 explosion at a Shiite shrine that enflamed sectarian tensions, forcing tens of thousands of Iraqis to flee their homes and pushing the country to the brink of civil war.
The bodies of five Iraqis who apparently were kidnapped and killed in captivity also were found Friday, four in Baghdad and one on the outskirts of the city, police said. Such sectarian killings by "death squads" have become common in Iraq, especially in the capital.
The U.S. command said the unflattering al-Zarqawi clips shown to reporters Thursday in Baghdad were part of a longer video that American troops seized in a raid last month.
Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, spokesman for the U.S. command, showed the new outtakes as the U.S. military is stepping up operations against Al Qaeda in Iraq and making overtures to other Sunni Arab groups.
The Americans hope to isolate religious extremists from insurgents they believe are more likely to cut a deal to end the war.
On the streets of Baghdad Friday, some Iraqis welcomed the U.S. part of the Al Qaeda in Iraq video, saying they hoped it would hurt al-Zarqawi's image as a powerful insurgent.
But others dismissed it as U.S. propaganda and said that if al-Zarqawi, a Sunni, was as incompetent as the Americans claimed, why haven't they been able to capture him, as they did former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein when he was hiding in his hometown of Tikrit.
"If it is authentic, the part of the video I saw on TV today shows that al-Zarqawi lacks the basic knowledge of weapons that any soldier should have," said Falah Abdel-Hassan, a Shiite and a government employee. "This could hurt his image."
Sattar al-Dulaimi, a Sunni, questioned the significance of the original video or its outtakes. He also said, "The reason the Americans haven't captured or killed al-Zarqawi is that they need an al-Qaida connection to justify their occupation of Iraq."
Lynch mocked al-Zarqawi as the previously unseen footage showed a smiling Al Qaeda leader first firing single shots from a U.S.-made M-249 light machine gun. A frown creeps across al-Zarqawi's face as the weapon jams. He looks at it, confused, then summons another fighter.
"It's supposed to be automatic fire. He's shooting single shots," Lynch said. "Something is wrong with his machine gun. He looks down, can't figure out, calls his friend to come unblock the stoppage and get the weapon firing again."
By contrast, the edited version which the militants posted on the Web showed what happened only after the fighter fixed the weapon — a fierce-looking al-Zarqawi confidently blasting away with bursts of automatic gunfire.
His fellow fighters and associates appear similarly inept in the newly released footage. One reaches out to grab a just-fired weapon by the barrel, apparently unaware that it would burn his hand. The camera quickly pans to the ground and then away.
"His close associates around him ... do things like grab the hot barrel of the machine gun and burn themselves," Lynch said. "Makes you wonder" about their military skills.
Another clip showed the Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi — who has derided everything Western — dressed in a black uniform but wearing New Balance tennis shoes as he walked to a white pickup.
Lynch said the full video was discovered during one of several raids against Al Qaeda in Iraq safe houses in the Baghdad area starting with an operation last month near Youssifiyah, 12 miles south of the capital.