BAGHDAD — An Iraqi soldier is accused of turning on two decorated American servicemen and shooting them to death during a joint operation in northern Iraq, the U.S. military said Saturday. An Iraqi official said the suspect may have links to militant groups.
The shooting the day after Christmas in the northern city of Mosul, which left three other U.S. soldiers and a civilian interpreter wounded, was one of only a handful of known attacks by a member of the Iraqi military on the American troops who train and work closely with Iraqi forces.
Initial results from an Iraqi investigation indicate that the soldier who opened fire may have links to local militants, said Brig. Mutaa Habib Jassim al-Khazrachi, commander of the Iraqi army's 2nd Division, who did not elaborate.
Brig. Nour al-Din Hussein, commander of the Iraqi army's 4th Brigade, 2nd Division in Mosul said the Iraqi soldier was a Sunni from the al-Qayara area south of Mosul city.
Parts of Mosul are considered strongholds of the Sunni extremist group al-Qaida in Iraq.
The suspect and another Iraqi soldier were in custody, the U.S. military said.
The military identified the slain Americans as Capt. Rowdy J. Inman, 38, of Panorama Village, Texas and Sgt. Benjamin B. Portell, 27, of Bakersfield, Calif. Both were assigned to the 3rd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment and were based at Fort Hood, Texas. Inman had been awarded the Bronze Star Medal and Portell the Army Commendation Medal.
"For reasons that are yet unknown, at least one Iraqi Army soldier allegedly opened fire killing" the two, the U.S. military said.
The soldier fled "but was identified by other Iraqi army personnel" and was apprehended, it said.
The U.S. military said its investigators and the Iraqi army were looking into the shooting.
Al-Khazrachi said the U.S. soldiers were shot during a firefight between the joint forces and gunmen. Troops often come under attack when moving into new areas to establish patrol bases or outposts.
The U.S. military said in April 2006 that an Iraqi soldier had been accused of fatally shooting a U.S. Marine at a base near Qaim, 200 miles west of Baghdad, near the Syrian border.
U.S. military investigators found that, on June 22, 2004, two California National Guardsmen were killed by Iraqi civil defense officers patrolling with them in Balad. The two deaths were originally attributed to an ambush.
A memorial service was held for Inman Friday in Killeen, Texas, near Fort Hood. The career military man was a veteran of Operation Desert Storm. He is survived by his wife, Shannon; daughters Keeley and Casey; and a son, Gary.
Inman's sister said the family had no comment and declined to say whether family members had been told any details of her brother's death.
"That will all come out through the military," Paula Inman said.
Portell was recently married and on a second tour of duty in Iraq, according to an obituary in the Bakersfield Californian.
"Ben was a great guy," Brian Murphy, a pastor at the Riverlakes Community Church told the paper. "He just got married seven months ago. It's horrible."
The paper said Portell's older brother is serving in Iraq and a younger brother used to serve in the army and also fought in Iraq.
Iraq's national police force is widely known to be infiltrated by Shiite militias _ in the southern city of Basra, the police chief fired 1,000 officers in December _ but the army is believed to be less prone to the phenomenon.
The U.S. and Iraqi military have been joined by predominantly Sunni tribal groups that have turned against al-Qaida in Iraq.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki offered his strongest public support to date for the U.S.-backed groups, promising to integrate a "large number" of them in the security forces.
The comments, in an interview published Saturday in the London-based Arabic daily Asharq al-Awsat, came as al-Maliki returned to Iraq after spending a week in London for what his office had described as a routine medical checkup.
"A large number of (the groups) will be integrated by the police and army according to health, age, academic qualifications and criminal and security records," he said in the interview. He gave no details. His government has said only 20,000 of the estimated 70,000 members will be absorbed into security forces.
"They contributed to security and we will continue to support them in this respect."
Al-Maliki, a Shiite, dismissed as "deliberate distortions" reports that his government was opposed to the predominantly Sunni groups, but added that he wanted to protect them against infiltration.
Separately Saturday, the U.S. military rejected reports of a roadside bomb striking a passing minibus and killing six people north of the town of Muqdadiyah, about 55 miles north of Baghdad. However, an official in the joint coordination center of Diyala province and an officer in Diyala police said the attack had occurred, and both confirmed the casualty figure. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media in one of Iraq's most violent areas. It was impossible to independently confirm either account.
Associated Press writer Hamza Hendawi and Mazin Yahya contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS there have been more than two known attacks by Iraqi troops on American servicemen)