The US military acknowledged Monday that three US soldiers, missing since their convoy came under attack near Mahmoudiyah on Saturday, are probably being held hostage by an al Qaeda-affiliated group.
Gen. William Caldwell said in a statement to the media that, "At this time, we believe they were abducted by terrorists belonging to Al Qaeda or an affiliated group, and this assessment is based on highly credible intelligence information."
Also on Monday, a statement released purportedly by the Islamic State of Iraq, urged the US to give up looking for the missing soldiers.
"What you are doing in searching for your soldiers will lead to nothing but exhaustion and headaches. Your soldiers are in our hands. If you want their safety, do not look for them," the statement said.
The US is obviously disinclined to follow that recommendation, but Maj. Gen. Caldwell took the opportunity in his taped statement Monday to remind US troops of the military's absolute commitment to the "Soldier's Creed," which pledges to not leave fallen comrades on the field of battle.
"To every man and woman out there serving in uniform here in Iraq from the United States, we believe in this deeply," Caldwell said. "And, therefore, we will make every effort available to find our three missing Soldiers."
Caldwell's statement offered further details on the circumstances of the incident on Saturday that led to the capture of the men, in which one Iraqi and four American soldiers were killed.
Caldwell reported that early Saturday morning Coalition forces were lining up for an operation against bomb-makers west of Baghdad when one position failed to respond to a radio call. Two units were redirected to check the position after an unmanned aerial vehicle showed two burning Humvees where the US forces should be.
Caldwell explained why it took more than an hour for additional forces to locate the burning Humvees, reporting that both units discovered undetonated IEDs while en route.
When US forces arrived on the scene, they verified that four troops were deceased in the burning Humvees, one more was discovered a short distance from the scene, and three more were missing. Then began the search.
The US military reported Monday that 4,000 U.S. troops backed by manned and unmanned aircraft, intelligence units and Iraqi forces have been scouring the farming area around Mahmudiyah and the nearby town of Youssifiyah for three days.
Caldwell said that the Iraqi people have been lending help to the search, saying, "Tips are coming in, and they are leading to operations against targets of interest.
Mahmudiyah residents complained to the AP on Monday that coalition forces had searched through their homes, and AP Television News footage reportedly showed one apartment that had been ransacked.
One man told AP that three residents in the area, including two guards at a local mosque, had been detained by coalition forces, but that could not be immediately confirmed.
U.S. and Iraqi forces also exchanged fire with gunmen near the town of Youssifiyah during the house-to-house search operation for the missing American soldiers, killing two suspected insurgents and injuring four others, a top Iraqi army officer in the area told the AP.
The officer said the fighting began at about 3:30 a.m. and lasted for about 30 minutes. The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to security concerns, said the coalition's search operation in the region has detained more than 100 suspects. The U.S. military did not immediately comment on the report.
AFP reports that local officials said security measures in the city of Mahmudiyah, itself, were largely unchanged, with the manhunt focusing on smaller outlying villages considered fiercely loyal to Al Qaeda.
"Search operations in Yusifiyah and the villages of Qaraghuli, Zuwaid, and Janabat west of Mahmudiyah are still ongoing," said Mahmudiyah mayor Moad Al Amiri.
"US and Iraqi forces are cordoning off the farmsteads and orchards in all these areas," Amiri said. On Sunday, the mayor said US forces had made at least 40 arrests during the operation, but the military could not confirm this.
Tennessee media is quoting family members of Sergeant James D. Connell, Jr. of the 10th Mountain Division, saying he was among five soldiers ambushed and killed in Iraq Saturday.
Watch below for Maj. Gen. William Caldwell's full statement on the incident and the efforts going into the search.