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Al-Qaida front group claims to have killed U.S. soldiers captured in Iraq ambush last month

BAGHDAD — Insurgents linked to al-Qaida issued a video Monday claiming they killed all three U.S. soldiers captured in an ambush last month. ‘‘They were alive and then dead,’’ a voice said during a sequence of images that included the military IDs of two Americans still missing.
    The nearly 11-minute video by an al-Qaida front group, the Islamic State of Iraq, offered no proof that the soldiers were killed and buried. The U.S. military insisted the massive manhunt south of Baghdad will go on.
    ‘‘We condemn the tactics used by these terrorists, and are using all means available to pursue those responsible,’’ said Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, the chief military spokesman in Baghdad. ‘‘We continue to search and hope that our two missing soldiers will be found alive and in good health.’’
    The video, posted on a militant Web site, included grainy black-and-white footage said to have been taken during the May 12 pre-dawn ambush. It also showed credit cards, money and other personal items the militants called ‘‘booty.’’ A headline said: ‘‘Bush is the reason of the loss of your POWs.’’
    The video was likely a show of strength by al-Qaida-linked militants, who find themselves increasingly engaged in violent battles against more moderate Sunni insurgents in Iraq.
    Jon Alterman, the Middle East program director for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the insurgents could have many other reasons for releasing the video.
    ‘‘It could be an effort to stop U.S. efforts to find them. It could be an effort to lighten up the pressure. It could be an effort to sow confusion,’’ he said. ‘‘It certainly doesn’t seem like anything definitive.’’
    Regardless of the soldiers’ status, the footage was the latest setback for the U.S. military as it seeks to quell the sectarian violence raging in Iraq. Military officials also acknowledged Monday that U.S.-led forces have control of fewer than one-third of Baghdad’s neighborhoods despite thousands of extra troops nearly four months into a security crackdown — an assessment that came as the U.S. death toll approached 3,500, with at least 15 American troops reported killed in the first three days of June.
    Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a military spokesman for Baghdad operations, confirmed a status report completed in May found that American and Iraqi forces were able to ‘‘protect the population’’ and ‘‘maintain physical influence over’’ only 146 of the 457 Baghdad neighborhoods, while troops have either not begun operations aimed at rooting out insurgents or still face ‘‘resistance’’ in the others.
    The report appeared to be the first comprehensive analysis of the progress of the operation that began Feb. 14. Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, is due to report in September on whether the current troop increase is working amid a fierce debate in Washington over whether President Bush should begin withdrawing American forces.
    But Bleichwehl stressed that the assessment, first reported by The New York Times, did not mean a lack of progress and said the setbacks were largely because of the need to return to some areas that had previously been cleared, as well as problems with the availability and reliability of Iraqi police.
    ‘‘It’s way too early to try and project what Baghdad will look like in September,’’ he said in a telephone interview.
    U.S. officials also pointed out that they have warned from the beginning that it would not be easy to pacify Baghdad and did not expect to see serious progress until autumn.
    ‘‘We have stated all along that this was going to be harder before it gets easier,’’ military spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said. ‘‘It’s going to be a tough fight over the summer, and the plan is just in its beginning stages.’’
    Iraqi authorities reported at least 15 people killed Monday in eight bombings, shootings and other incidents. In addition, at least 47 bodies were discovered nationwide, apparent victims of sectarian or political killings; they included 28 bullet-ridden bodies in Baghdad, most handcuffed, blindfolded and showing signs of torture
    The Bush administration, which has ordered some 30,000 extra American troops to Baghdad and surrounding areas as part of the security crackdown, has warned that the buildup will result in more U.S. casualties as American soldiers increasingly come into contact with enemy forces and concentrate on the streets of Baghdad and remote outposts.
    The three U.S. soldiers were abducted as they were participating in an operation to watch for insurgents placing roadside bombs on a dangerous road near Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of Baghdad. The militants breached the concertina wire surrounding the stationary outpost composed of two Humvees, killing four other American troops and an Iraqi.
    The Islamic State of Iraq issued Web statements shortly after the attack claiming responsibility and warning the Americans to call off the hunt ‘‘if you want their safety.’’
    A body found in the Euphrates River on May 23, 11 days after the attack, was identified by the U.S. military as Pfc. Joseph Anzack Jr., 20, of Torrance, Calif.
    Spc. Alex R. Jimenez, 25, of Lawrence, Mass., and of Pvt. Byron W. Fouty, 19, of Waterford, Mich., remain missing.
    Monday’s video clip, made available to The Associated Press by the Washington-based SITE Institute, offered close-ups of two identification cards for Jimenez and Fouty, but did not show the soldiers.
    The video also showed footage of three masked and black-clad men in a forest standing around an easel displaying a sketch of the area, apparently mapping out the attack plan. ‘‘I have urged you to bring me American prisoners,’’ said one of the men, whose name was not given but was identified as a leader.
    ‘‘The Americans sent 4,000 soldiers looking for them,’’ an unidentified voice said on the video, which featured the logo of the media production house of the Islamic State of Iraq. ‘‘They were alive and then dead.’’
    The voiceover blamed their deaths on ‘‘the American Army and their leaders, who do not care for the feelings of the soldiers’ mothers.’’
    ‘‘And as you refused to deliver the bodies of our killed people, we will not deliver the bodies of your dead, and their end will be beneath the ground, Allah willing,’’ the voice said.
    Fouty’s stepfather, Gordon Dibler, said relatives and family friends will continue believing he is alive.
    ‘‘It’s actually been hopeful for me that these items are being displayed,’’ Dibler told reporters during a news conference in Oxford, Mich. ‘‘I hope that those who hold him understand that he is just a boy, becoming a man.’’
    ———
    Associated Press writers Corey Williams in Detroit and Anna Johnson and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo, Egypt, contributed to this report.

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