BAGHDAD – An Iraqi soldier opened fire on U.S. troops during a joint patrol in the northern city of Mosul on December 26, killing two and wounding three others along with a civilian interpreter, Iraqi and U.S. officials said on Saturday.
The U.S. military said it was not clear why the Iraqi soldier had opened fire, but two Iraqi generals told Reuters the attacker had links to Sunni Arab insurgent groups.
It is believed to be the first reported incident in which an Iraqi soldier has deliberately killed U.S. servicemen since Saddam Hussein was toppled in the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
The U.S. military said in a statement the two slain soldiers were Captain Rowdy Inman and Sergeant Benjamin Portell, both assigned to 3rd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, III Corps, based in Fort Hood, Texas.
“The Iraqi soldier who allegedly opened fire fled the scene but was identified by other Iraqi army personnel and was then apprehended. Two Iraqi army soldiers are now being held in connection with the incident,” the military said.
In response to the shooting, the Iraqi army has tightened screening of new recruits in the 2nd Division, which controls the Mosul region, and is carrying out more thorough background checks on serving soldiers, the Iraqi generals said.
U.S. and Iraqi troops have been conducting joint patrols as part of a new U.S. counter-insurgency strategy to curb sectarian violence and improve the capabilities of Iraq’s military, which will take over more security responsibilities to allow U.S. forces to begin withdrawing from Iraq.
The commander of the Iraqi army’s 2nd Division, Brigadier-General Mutaa al-Khazraji, told Reuters the U.S. soldiers were killed during a joint patrol in Hermat in western Mosul, 390 km (240 miles) north of Baghdad.
The patrol “was attacked by gunmen and the soldier abused the situation and killed the two soldiers. The soldier was an insurgent infiltrator,” Khazraji said.
Brigadier-General Noor al-Din Hussein, commander of the Iraqi Army’s 4th Brigade, 2nd Division, told Reuters: “The shooting was deliberate. It was not an accident.”
U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel James Hutton declined comment on whether the incident was likely to create mistrust between Iraqi and U.S. soldiers, who live and work together in joint security stations across Iraq.
“We are partnering with the Iraqi army all over the country in almost all the operations we conduct,” he said.
Hussein said the Iraqi soldier had only been in the army for one year and was an Arab from the Jubouri tribe. Most soldiers serving in the Mosul area are from Iraq’s Kurdish minority.
“There is some penetration (by insurgents) and we want to purify the Iraqi army. Our soldiers are good and doing well. This is the first time something like this has happened,” Hussein said.
He said he and Khazraji had attended a memorial service for the slain soldiers. The two generals said the U.S. military were allowing the Iraqi military to handle the investigation.
U.S. commanders have been praising the improving abilities of the Iraqi military, which was rebuilt from scratch after the U.S. invasion and has been beset by a high desertion rate and some units refusing to deploy outside their home provinces.
American generals say Iraqi units have performed well in a series of counter-insurgency operations that have contributed to a 60 percent drop in violence in Iraq since June 2007.