BAGHDAD – American paratroopers found the ID cards of two missing soldiers at an Al Qaeda safe house more than 100 miles north of where the men were snatched in an ambush last month, the military said on Saturday. The soldiers found computers, video equipment and weapons but no sign of the missing men.
The U.S. ground forces commander, meanwhile, said U.S. and Iraqi forces have full control in only 40 percent of Baghdad in the fifth month of the operation to retake the city from Shiite militiamen, Sunni insurgents and Al Qaeda.
Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno also said that American forces began a drive Friday night into the dangerous regions of Arab Jabour and Salman Pac on the southern fringes of Baghdad.
It marked the first time in three years that U.S. soldiers have crossed into the Al Qaeda strongholds, where the militants build car bombs and launch Katyusha rockets at American bases and Shiite Muslim neighborhoods.
The top commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, said during a news conference with Defense Secretary Robert Gates that the operation would put forces into key Al Qaeda-held areas surrounding Baghdad.
With Baghdad and Basra — the country's second largest city and gateway to the Persian Gulf — under curfew, violent deaths were down dramatically Saturday. Only three people were reported to have been killed or found dead in sectarian violence.
That does not count the discovery of 13 bodies of a tae kwon do team that was kidnapped last year in western Iraq while driving to a training camp in neighboring Jordan. The bodies were found 65 miles west of Ramadi, according to police and hospital officials.
Also, aides to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told The Associated Press that talks Saturday between Gates and the Iraqi leader were difficult and extremely blunt.
Two top political advisers to the prime minister told The Associated Press that al-Maliki, a Shiite, objected vigorously to the new U.S. policy of arming and training Sunni militants in the fight against al-Qaida.
A third said Gates told al-Maliki that benchmark political and legislative action — including a new law to share oil revenues — must be complete by September when the defense secretary must report to the U.S. Congress on progress in Iraq.
Gates also met with President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and expressed concern that the security situation nationwide might be spiraling out of control, according to an aide to the president.
The officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the details of the talks. The said they were briefed on the talks by officials present in the meetings.
The top U.S. commander in the Middle East, Adm. William Fallon carried a similar message to the Iraqis June 10, and John Negroponte, the No. 2 State Department official, reinforced it in a visit midweek.
Megan O'Sullivan, who recently resigned as U.S. President George W. Bush's deputy national security adviser, met with both Talabani and al-Maliki on Thursday, presumably to lay the groundwork for Saturday's sessions with Gates. O'Sullivan has recently begun working with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker as a liaison with the Iraqi leadership.
Paratroopers made the surprise discovery of the missing soldiers' identification cards June 9 near Samara. The safe house — more than 100 miles from the area where the men disappeared — was otherwise empty, the military statement said. American soldiers approaching the building came under fire from a nearby stand of trees, and two were wounded before air support could arrive.
Spc. Alex R. Jimenez and Pvt. Byron Fouty were snatched in a raid on their 10th Mountain Division unit on May 12 near Youssifiyah. The body of a third soldier taken in the raid, Pfc. Joseph Anzack Jr., was found floating in the Euphrates River. Four U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi translator were killed in the May 12 ambush.
The Islamic State of Iraq, a front group for al-Qaida, claimed in a video posted on the Internet this month that all three missing soldiers were killed and buried. The militants showed images of the military IDs of Jimenez, 25, of Lawrence, Mass., and Fouty, 19, of Waterford, Mich., but offered no proof that they were dead.
"Bad news is good news," said Wendy Luzon, a friend of the Jimenez family. "It's better than not getting any news for weeks. Getting this news is something good. We keep hoping that he's alive. We have nothing that tells us differently."
Lt. Gen. Odierno outlined the new operation in the southern reaches of Baghdad during an interview with two reporters as he visited an American military outpost near the main marketplace in the southern Dora district, a major Sunni stronghold.
"There's about 30 percent of the city that needs work, like here in Dora and the surrounding areas," the hulking ground forces chief said. "Those are the areas that we consider to be the hot spots, which usually have a Sunni-Shiite fault line, and also areas where al-Qaida has decided to make a stand."
Of the other more than two-thirds of the city, Odierno said 30 percent still suffered from a high degree of violence while about "40 percent is really very safe on a routine basis."
The military said an American soldier was killed in a roadside bombing in southern Baghdad and an Ohio National Guard pilot was killed when his F-16 fighter crashed shortly after takeoff from Balad Air Base in central Iraq. The two deaths on Friday brought to at least 3,522 the number of American military personnel who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Underscoring the challenges ahead, Gates arrived in Baghdad to find a city all but shut down by a security lockdown imposed after the bombing of an important shrine north of the city. The explosion at the Shiite Askariya shrine in Samarra destroyed the mosque's minarets and has prompted at least two retaliatory attacks — both in southern Iraq.
On Saturday, bombers loaded into pickup trucks pulled up to the al-Ashrah al-Mubashra mosque in Basra's al-Hakimiya district at dawn, residents in nearby houses said. Minutes after they left, a huge explosion tore through the building, leveling it.
As they were leaving, the insurgents wrote graffiti on the mosque complex's outer wall with the names of revered Shiite saints, witnesses said. They also hoisted a green Shiite flag over a crumbling part of the mosque complex, they said.
Iraqi police did not immediately respond to the bombing, witnesses said, raising fears that the city's Shiite-dominated security forces were unwilling to stop sectarian attacks on Sunni landmarks. No injuries were reported in the attack in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, which is about 340 miles southeast of Baghdad.