BAGHDAD — Five American soldiers were killed Monday in an attack in central Iraq, the military said. It was the deadliest attack this year against U.S. forces in Iraq and underscored the dangers American troops still face as they prepare to withdraw by the end of 2011.
The U.S. military said the five soldiers died at a base in eastern Baghdad that was hit by indirect fire, the military's term for mortars or rockets.
The Associated Press said it was later told by two Iraqi security officials that three rockets slammed into a joint U.S.-Iraqi base in the Baladiyat neighborhood near the U.S. forces' living quarters. The American troops are partnering with Ministry of Interior forces.
Washington has been pressuring Baghdad to make a decision on whether it wants American forces to stay past Dec. 31 to help with such missions as protecting Iraq's airspace and training Iraqi forces, and Monday's attack follows warnings from Shiite militants backed by Iran and anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr that they would violently resist any effort to keep American troops in Iraq past their year-end deadline to go home.
U.S. military officers say they are bracing for more attacks until their departure, especially from armed Shiite groups, particularly Sadr's fighters.
"We've anticipated that they would attack us and try to ramp up their attacks though various militias this year and essentially claim credit for us leaving," said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, a military spokesman, in a recent interview.
Already, the U.S. military has acknowledged an increase in attacks carried out with more powerful weapons.
Buchanan said there had been an increase in the use of larger-caliber 120mm and 240mm rockets, which were Iranian-made and likely smuggled in from the eastern border with Iran. "Obviously … the bigger rocket means a potentially longer range, a potentially bigger warhead and a potentially worse impact," Buchanan said.
The five fatalities Monday were the most in a single day since May 11, 2009, when five troops died in a noncombat incident. On April 10, 2009, six U.S. troops died — five in combat in the northern city of Mosul and one north of Baghdad in a noncombat related incident.
According to an AP tally, 4,459 American service members have died in Iraq since the war began in 2003.
At the height of the surge of U.S. forces four years ago to combat sectarian violence that nearly tore Iraq apart, there were about 170,000 American troops in the country. The number then was gradually drawn down to below 50,000 when Washington announced it had ended its combat operations 10 months ago.
Violence around Iraq has dropped dramatically since the insurgency's most deadly years in 2006 and 2007. But eight years into a war often perceived as all but over, the deaths of the five U.S. soldiers and 11 Iraqis killed in other attacks around the country Monday underscore the persistent dangers.
Eleven U.S. soldiers were killed in April, and two died last month in attacks. An estimated 46,000 American troops remain in Iraq on about 66 bases. The U.S. military is currently involved in training Iraqi forces and conducting joint operations, notably with Iraq's counterterrorism units. They also guard diplomatic teams traveling around the country.
The military expects its numbers to stay even through the end of the summer. Its biggest bases in Baghdad, western Anbar province, the northern provinces of Nineveh and Salahuddin, along with important hubs in the south near Hillah and Nasiriya will not be handed over until around December.
Information from the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.