BAGHDAD -- Three American soldiers were killed yesterday in the Sunni insurgent area west of Baghdad, and Iraqi officials said about 1,500 people died violently last month in the capital, many shot execution-style by sectarian death squads.
The soldiers were assigned to the First Brigade, First Armored Division, a US statement said. The brigade operates around Ramadi, capital of Anbar province where support for the Sunni insurgency is strong.
In addition, two Americans were missing yesterday after a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter went down the day before in Anbar province. The helicopter crashed in an unspecified body of water, and divers were searching for the missing troops, the military said. The crash was not caused by hostile fire, US officials said.
The deaths brought the number of American service members killed in Iraq to at least 17 this month. All but five died in Anbar, indicating the ongoing threat from Sunni insurgents at a time when attention has been focused on violence between Sunnis and Shi'ites in Baghdad.
Yesterday, deputy Health Minister Dr. Sabah al-Husseini said about 1,500 violent deaths were reported last month in the Baghdad area, excluding members of the US-led coalition.
The assistant manager of the Baghdad morgue, Dr. Abdul Razzaq al-Obeidi, said that 1,815 bodies were brought in last month and that about 85 percent had died violently. The most common cause of violent deaths was gunshot wounds, mostly to the head, he told The Associated Press.
Head shots are generally associated with death squads that roam the capital seeking victims from the rival Muslim sect. Violence between Shi'ite and Sunni extremists has been surging since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra.
Four people were killed and five wounded when fighting broke out late yesterday between gunmen and residents of a Shi'ite community in north Baghdad, police Lieutenant Salim Ali said. Sporadic clashes were continuing, he said.
Four people were killed and 16 wounded in an explosion late Tuesday at a Shi'ite mosque in Baqubah, a religiously mixed city 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. Several nearby buildings were damaged.
In a statement yesterday, the Shi'ite Endowment, which takes care of Shi'ite shrines in Iraq, blamed ``terrorists" for the blast and demanded that government forces protect places of worship in the area -- scene of numerous car bombings, kidnappings, and armed attacks by Sunnis and Shi'ites.
The rise in sectarian violence has dashed US hopes that installation of the national unity government would set the stage for a significant drawdown in the 127,000-member US military force here.
Instead, the US military is rushing 12,000 American and Iraqi soldiers to Baghdad to regain control of the streets from Sunni insurgents, Shi'ite militiamen, criminals, and freelance gunmen.
US officials have refused to say how many reinforcements have arrived in the capital, although some of them have been seen patrolling a tense Sunni neighborhood in west Baghdad.
Major General William Caldwell told reporters yesterday that the buildup would take place gradually and that the new operation needs the cooperation of the Iraqi public to succeed.
``They have to be involved. The Iraqi people have to want this to work. If they are not involved . . . then there is no solution," Caldwell said.
His appeal reflects the private frustration of some US officials that Iraqis are reluctant to provide information on gunmen hiding in their neighborhoods.
More significantly, many of the sectarian militias responsible for the violence are linked to political parties that are part of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, which took office May 20.
Some US officials have said Iraqi commanders themselves are frustrated over what they consider a lack of support from politicians.
Maliki, a Shi'ite, strongly criticized a US-Iraqi raid Monday on a Shi'ite neighborhood in which three people were killed. The raid was directed at the stronghold of the Mahdi Army militia of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, an ally of the prime minister.
Caldwell defended the operation, saying US and Iraqi forces tried to avoid civilian casualties and escalated the use of force only after drawing heavy fire from gunmen.
Caldwell said ``these death squads, the anti-Iraqi elements" were hiding ``within the civilian population" to make it difficult ``to get to them without inflicting casualties on civilians."
``They know exactly what they're doing by where they're placing themselves," he said.