Six more US soldiers have been killed in Iraq, the military announced on Thursday, confirming that May has become the deadliest month for American forces in two-and-a-half years.
Meanwhile, the hunt intensified for five Britons who were snatched at gunpoint from a finance ministry building in the capital earlier this week, in an abduction that has been blamed on Baghdad’s Shiite militias.
US forces detained two suspects in a raid on Sadr City, the eastern Baghdad bastion of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, but it was not clear whether this operation was linked to the missing Britons.
The raids come one day after the US military arrested a Mahdi Army commander in Kadhimiyah, a northern Shiite district in Baghdad, according to a US statement released Thursday.
The man was accused of “managing operations to murder and intimidate local Iraqis and ordering several attacks on coalition forces,” and of training militants in the use of armour-piercing roadside bombs, the statement said.
Two US soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb on Wednesday in the southwest corner of the capital, a ward of battered neighbourhoods that has seen intense fighting recently. A separate blast that day killed two others on foot patrol.
Another soldier was killed earlier this week by a roadside blast northwest of the capital, and a US soldier died of “non-battle related causes,” the military also announced on Thursday.
The latest deaths bring US casualties for the month to 119, the most since November 2004 when marines launched a full-scale invasion to retake the city of Fallujah in the volatile western Anbar province.
Unlike in Fallujah, US forces have fought no major set-piece encounters in May, but instead have been fanning out through Baghdad and a belt of flashpoint towns around the capital in a bid to quell sectarian violence.
“First and foremost, it’s been a tough month,” Brigadier General Perry Wiggins, deputy director of regional operations with the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a Defence Department briefing on Wednesday.
“We’re moving into places where we haven’t been, not necessarily before.”
April was also bloody for the US-led coalition, with 104 deaths. Taken together, the two past months have been the deadliest since the March 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
The news will increase pressure on US President George W. Bush, who has already seen domestic support for his war strategy fall to an all-time low and is facing calls to set a timetable for troops withdrawals.
May’s casualties coincide with a “surge” in US reinforcements, which is due to peak next month. Under this plan, US and Iraqi troops are basing themselves in exposed patrol bases in order to control Baghdad street by street.
US commander General David Petraeus hopes that the surge will provide breathing space for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government, allowing him to push through laws to underpin a programme of national reconciliation.
The continuing instability of the capital was driven home Tuesday when a squad of gunmen in police uniforms stormed a finance ministry building and dragged off five British visitors.
The Britons are still missing amid fears they have fallen into the hands of one of the Shiite militia groups that have infiltrated Iraq’s police.
Insurgents also struck an important propaganda victory on May 12, when an Al-Qaeda gang destroyed a small US patrol manning a temporary observation post south of Baghdad, killing four soldiers and capturing three.
The corpse of one was later found floating in the Euphrates river, with gunshot wounds to the head and torso. Almost three weeks after the attack his two comrades are still missing, despite a massive US manhunt.
The missing men’s commander, Colonel Michael Kershaw of the 10th Mountain Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team, said that interrogations of suspects had thrown up a number of leads and that the search would continue.
“Obviously we have a number of different trails we are following. They all lead to different groups. We know we have some of the people that participated,” he told AFP at a base outside Baghdad on Wednesday.
Kershaw’s search area is a 854-square-kilometre (330-square-mile) sector in an insurgent bog of palm groves, high grass, and irrigation canals dubbed “The Triangle of Death”.
Kershaw’s troops have questioned 1,100 people and detained 104 of them.
A suicide bomber in an explosives belt killed one Iraqi policeman in an attack on his patrol and wounded at least seven more people in Fallujah, the US military said.
In the northern city of Kirkuk a bomb killed one person while police in Mosul police found five corpses, three in army uniforms.