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Three U.S. soldiers were killed late Thursday when insurgents attacked the main base outside of Basra with indirect fire, officials said Friday.

The soldiers, assigned to Multi-National Division-South, were killed at Contingency Operating Base Basra around 9:15 p.m. The base is around 20 miles outside Basra.

Basra has largely been free of violence since Iraqi and Western forces swept through the city last year to rid it of Shiite militias and insurgents.

U.S. troops took over the Western mission in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, earlier this year after British forces departed.

The U.S. Army’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team Mechanized, 4th Infantry Division, took over Iraq’s southernmost province and moved troops — mostly training units and infantry soldiers who help with security — into outposts in and around the city.

Under the security agreement between Iraq and the U.S., though, nearly all of them have left the city, with around 200 trainers still there.

In interviews last month, U.S. military leaders said Basra has one prominent gang that’s building and deploying roadside bombs. Officials said the gang members are the same men who once belonged to militias that held Basra hostage before being swept out by Iraqi army soldiers more than a year ago. But now, commanders said, it’s hard to tell if violence comes from political or economic motivations.

While indirect fire attacks on U.S. bases have dropped since their peak in 2007, the bases have still come under sporadic fire. Those indirect fire attacks tend to increase in poor weather, which has plagued Iraq in recent weeks.

Insurgents have long used dust storms in Iraq as cover for indirect fire attacks. This summer the storms have been particularly bad, Air Force meteorologists in Iraq said.

Maj. Greg Fox, 46, of Omaha, Neb., who does dust forecasting for the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron at Joint Base Balad, said U.S. forces are on guard during dust storms because they know indirect fire attacks are more likely during poor visibility.

This summer there has been an average of three dust storms each month, each lasting an average of three days, he said.

During dust storms, when visibility is low, U.S. air assets are limited, making it harder to track and strike attackers who fire on bases with mortars and rockets.

Stars and Stripes reporter Seth Robson contributed to this story.

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