BAGHDAD (AP) — Thieves, not insurgents, were behind unusual robberies of four ships anchored off Iraq's southern coast, an Iraqi intelligence official said Monday, insisting they do not pose a larger threat to commercial traffic in the strategic waters.
The U.S. Navy said Sunday that gunmen armed with AK-47 rifles had boarded four commercial ships in a two-hour time span in the vicinity of an Iraqi oil terminal in the northern Persian Gulf on Aug. 8. The assailants took computers, cell phones and money from crew members before fleeing, according to Lt. John Fage, a spokesman for the Navy's Fifth Fleet in Bahrain.
The unusual heist raised concerns that insurgents, who increasingly are turning to crime to finance their terror missions, could threaten the waterway. But officials said there was no evidence al Qaeda or other groups were behind the ship robberies, although militants have been suspected in a spate of major bank robberies and jewelry heists in Baghdad.
The vessels were identified as the American ship Sagamore, the Antigua-flagged Armenia, the North Korean Crystal Wave and the Syrian Sana Star.
The seaborne robbery, which occurred about 20 miles off the port of Umm Qasr in an area patrolled jointly by the U.S. and Iraqi navies, raised concern about a new threat in the strategic area.
American vessels, including a guided missile destroyer, in the area for routine security operations responded to the attacks, Lt. Fage said.
But the Basra-based intelligence officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing, said the interrogation of two Iraqis arrested after the incident indicated it was a robbery attempt without a larger agenda.
The officer said the detainees had confessed to conducting the robberies in coordination with four other men who remained at large but said they were not part of a larger gang.
Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, which is located near Umm Qasr, has been relatively quiet since a 2008 military crackdown that ended three years of Shi'ite militia rule, rampant crime and turmoil. The area and the surrounding province contain about 70 percent of Iraq's proven oil reserves of 115 billion barrels.
Violence has dropped sharply in Iraq, but attacks continue.
An American soldier was killed Sunday while on patrol in the Diyala provincial capital of Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, the military said.
A statement issued Monday gave no further details, saying the incident was under investigation.
The American's death raised to at least 4,415 the number of U.S military personnel who have died in Iraq since the war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Insurgents have warned they would step up attacks ahead of U.S. plans to end its combat mission by September, a step toward a deadline for a full military withdrawal by the end of next year.
Associated Press writer Hamid Ahmed contributed to this report.