BAGHDAD - U.S. aircraft dropped leaflets seeking information about three U.S. soldiers feared captured by al-Qaeda in Iraq, as troops intensified the search yesterday despite a warning from the extremist group that the hunt will endanger the captives' lives.

The U.S. command said the searchers were trying to isolate areas where they suspect the captives might have been taken after the predawn ambush Saturday in which four American troops and an Iraq soldier were killed.

"The captors don't have freedom of movement," Maj. Kenny Mintz said. "If they have the soldiers, they can't move them from where they are. We're doing a deliberate search of the areas."

On Monday, an al-Qaeda front group - the Islamic State of Iraq - warned the Americans in a Web statement to call off the hunt "if you want their safety."

The warning could indicate that the presence of about 4,000 U.S. troops in the thinly populated farming area 20 miles south of Baghdad is making it difficult for the captors to move the Americans to a secure location.

In a statement yesterday, the U.S. command said American soldiers had questioned more than 450 people and detained at least 11 since the search began last weekend.

A later statement said aircraft had dropped leaflets asking for help in locating the soldiers. Trucks with loudspeakers were roaming the area urging people to come forward with any information.

Helicopters had logged more than 255 hours and other U.S. security agencies had deployed their assets in the race to locate the soldiers, whom the military still assumed were alive, said a U.S. spokesman, Lt. Col. Christopher Garver. Other aircraft and jets zoomed overhead, and satellite technology had been tapped as soldiers scoured the hostile area.

Al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups have been active for years in the towns and villages in the area, known as the "triangle of death" because of frequent attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces as well as Shiite civilians traveling to shrine cities in the south.

At the time of Saturday's attack, the soldiers had been parked in two vehicles on the road between the towns of Yousifiya and Mahmoudiya, prowling for insurgents planting roadside bombs, Garver said. The troops were part of a team scattered along the road south of Baghdad waiting to catch rebels.

An Iraqi Sunni tribal leader, who identified himself as Sheikh Abu-Yasin, said the Americans were focusing their hunt on a farming region called Harqhawiya, populated by Sunnis, who grow wheat, barley and keep sheep, located between Mahmoudiya and Yousifiya.

"The Americans have been conducting raids and arrests for the past three days in this area," Abu-Yasin said. ". . . The search is very hard because of the nature of the orchards and farms."

The soldiers attacked were assigned to a small patrol base set up as part of the new U.S. strategy to move troops from large, heavily defended garrisons to live and work among the people.

Critics of the strategy had warned that such small outposts were more vulnerable to attack. Last month, nine American soldiers were killed when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives-laden vehicle near a small patrol base northeast of Baghdad.

Last week, an embedded reporter for Stars and Stripes newspaper, who visited the patrol base south of Baghdad, said the soldiers were housed in a rural home with protective razor wire "not far from the front door."

"Soon after the base was established, insurgents began testing their new neighbors," Stars and Stripes said. "In the first months, one convoy came across seven roadside bombs piled outside the front gates. More recently, U.S. officials had gotten reports that a force of more than two dozen insurgents planned to storm the walls" although the attack never materialized.

Yesterday, the military said the soldiers were assigned to the 10th Mountain Division from Fort Drum, N.Y.

On Other Fronts: 51 Dead

At least 51 people were killed or found dead in attacks across Iraq. They included seven killed in a pair of bombings in Baghdad's Tayaran Square shopping area and four who died when mortar shells struck the capital's Shiite area of Sadr City.

Under a new government policy limiting coverage of such tragedies, Iraqi police stopped photographers

and camera crews from filming the scene.

Elsewhere, five civilians were killed and 41 wounded when dozens of gunmen attacked a village north of the capital, Iraqi authorities said.

A mortar or rocket slammed into the U.S.-controlled

Green Zone, wounding five American Embassy contractors, a spokesman said. U.S. Embassy spokesman Lou Fintor

said there were no deaths and property damage

was minimal.

- Associated PressEndText

This article contains information from the Los Angeles Times

.