By REBECCA SANTANA
BAGHDAD -- An Iraqi soldier fired a barrage of bullets at American troops protecting one of their commanders during a visit to an Iraqi army base Tuesday and killed two of them, the first U.S. servicemen to die since President Barack Obama declared an end to combat operations in the country last week.
Even after the U.S. dramatically reduced the number of troops and rebranded its mission in Iraq, the attack was a reminder that Americans still have to defend themselves in a dangerous country where Iraqi forces only have a tenuous hold on security. Nine Americans were wounded in Tuesday's shooting.
The attack also showed that even inside the bases of U.S.-trained Iraqi forces, American soldiers can still face danger. Just on Sunday, Americans training Iraqi forces at a military headquarters in the heart of Baghdad had to help fight off a squad of suicide attackers, two of whom managed to breach the compound in an hour-long battle. U.S. helicopters and drones joined the fight, but no American personnel were hurt in that assault.
The Americans attacked on Tuesday were providing security for a commander attending a meeting with Iraqi military personnel at a base near the city of Tuz Khormato, about 130 miles north of Baghdad.
The assailant opened fire after an argument and was killed in the shootout that followed, said the city's police chief, Col. Hussein Rashid. He did not provide details on the nature of the argument.
"This is a tragic and cowardly act and is certainly not reflective of the Iraqi security forces," said Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo, the American commander in charge of U.S. forces in northern Iraq.
Cucolo stressed during the Sept. 1 ceremony marking the formal change in the American mission that his soldiers know the fight is not over. "There are groups here that still want to hurt us," he said last week.
The names of the slain soldiers were being withheld until their families were notified.
At least 4,418 U.S. military personnel have been killed in Iraq since the war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
The American military has reduced its footprint in the country from a one-time high of 170,000 troops to just under 50,000 as of Aug. 31. American troops pulled out of Iraqi cities in the summer of 2009, and soon after U.S. casualties fell significantly.
Under an agreement between Iraq and the United States, all American forces are to leave the country by the end of next year.
The U.S. troops remaining in Iraq until then are tasked with training Iraqi security forces, providing security for some State Department missions and assisting the Iraqi forces in hunting down insurgent groups. But they can be drawn into combat missions if Iraqi forces request their help.