Thursday, March 22, 2007

BAGHDAD — U.S. troops sweeping Baghdad have found containers of nitric acid and chlorine, raising concerns that insurgents are expanding their use of chemicals in the war for power in Iraq, military officials said yesterday.

The containers were found as part of a larger cache of weapons discovered as U.S. and Iraqi troops cleared house after house in the Sunni-majority Ghazaliyah neighborhood in western Baghdad.

In a new twist in the Iraqi conflict, chlorine gas set off by suicide bombers in villages west of Baghdad killed at least eight and sickened hundreds last week. It was the first time the chemical was found in the capital.

Although both nitric acid and chlorine have a variety of industrial uses, finding them alongside weapons stashes in known terrorist havens signified a change of tactic for the fighters, said a U.S. military official who asked not to be named.

“We’ve seen them use caustic acid with improvised explosive devices to burn the skin,” said the official, adding that although the acid does not increase the lethality of a bomb, it does make it “nastier.”

About 1,600 Iraqi and U.S. forces have been taking part in the operations aimed at ridding Baghdad’s Mansour area of both al Qaeda terrorists and illegal militias.

In one house in nearby Amariyah raided by Iraqi troops and the U.S. Army’s Striker Brigade yesterday, soldiers found mortar shells stored in a bag in the front yard, along with a meat cleaver and a bomb fashioned from a propane tank.

Inside the house, clothing, photographs and children’s toys were piled high in filthy corners. Black and white banners declared the rule of the Islamic Army, a Sunni extremist group.

Iraqi army soldiers spread out the munitions plus an array of license plates on the sidewalk before U.S. explosives specialists came to detonate the propane tank. The explosion shook houses in the area.

Frightened neighbors nervously acknowledged to U.S. soldiers that a group of young men had been squatting in the house during the day, but would not offer any more information, and clammed up the moment Iraqi army soldiers entered the house.

“When you leave, the Iraqi army comes in here and asks us what we told you,” said the man, smoking cigarette after cigarette.

Earlier in the week, soldiers found an Iraqi policeman in uniform tied to a post, blindfolded, shot in the abdomen and left to die, a clear intimidation tactic as troops try to secure Baghdad’s volatile neighborhoods.

Iraqi and U.S. forces have detained dozens of people during their raids, holding them for further questions.

In other developments yesterday, the U.S. military said it captured two brothers who were “directly connected” to the Jan. 20 sneak attack that killed five U.S. soldiers guarding the provincial headquarters in Karbala, a city 50 miles south of Baghdad, the Associated Press reported.

Qais al-Khazaali, his brother Laith al-Khazaali and several other members of their network were rounded up over the past three days.

The military also said it released an aide to Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr, Ahmed al-Shibani, at the request of Iraq’s prime minister.

The U.S. military announced that three Americans died in combat Wednesday. At least 44 Iraqis were killed or found dead yesterday, including 25 bodies dumped in the capital, police said.

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