Ex-insurgents, al-Qaida clash in Iraq
BAGHDAD – Former Sunni insurgents asked the U.S. to stay away, then ambushed members of al-Qaida in Iraq, killing 18 in a battle that raged for hours north of Baghdad, an ex-insurgent leader and Iraqi police said Saturday.The Islamic Army in Iraq sent advance word to Iraqi police requesting that U.S. helicopters keep out of the area since its fighters had no uniforms and were indistinguishable from al-Qaida, according to the police and a top Islamic Army leader known as Abu Ibrahim.Abu Ibrahim told The Associated Press that his fighters killed 18 al-Qaida militants and captured 16 in the fight southeast of Samarra, a mostly Sunni city about 60 miles north of Baghdad.”We found out that al-Qaida intended to attack us, so we ambushed them at 3 p.m. on Friday,” Abu Ibrahim said. He would not say whether any Islamic Army members were killed.Much of the Islamic Army in Iraq, a major Sunni Arab insurgent group that includes former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, has joined the U.S.-led fight against al-Qaida in Iraq along with Sunni tribesmen and other former insurgents repelled by the terror group’s brutality and extremism.An Iraqi police officer corroborated Abu Ibrahim’s account, but said policemen were not able to verify the number of bodies because the area was still too dangerous to enter.Before the battle, the insurgent commander personally contacted Iraqi police in Samarra himself to tell them his plans, according to the officer and Abu Ibrahim himself. He asked that Iraqi authorities inform the American military about his plans, and requested that no U.S. troops interfere, they said.The U.S. military said Saturday it had no record of U.S. troops ever being informed about the operation, and it was unclear whether Iraqi police followed through on Abu Ibrahim’s request.The police officer said the al-Qaida captives would not be transferred to Iraqi police.Instead, he said, he believed the Islamic Army would offer a prisoner swap for some of its members held by al-Qaida. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because of the situation’s sensitivity.Meanwhile, farther east, in Diyala province, members of another former insurgent group, the 1920s Revolution Brigades, launched a military-style operation Saturday against al-Qaida in Iraq there, the Iraqi Army said.About 60 militants were captured and handed over to Iraqi soldiers, an Army officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to media.Afterward, hundreds of people paraded through the streets of Buhriz, about 35 miles north of Baghdad, witnesses said. Many danced and fired their guns into the air, shouting “Down with al-Qaida!” and “Diyala is for all Iraqis!”Like the Islamic Army, the 1920s Revolution Brigades includes former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party and officers from his Army. Hundreds of 1920s members now work as scouts and gather intelligence for American soldiers in Diyala.And at Baghdad’s most revered Sunni shrine, the Abu Hanifa mosque, voices blasted from loudspeakers Saturday urging residents to turn against al-Qaida: “We are your sons, the sons of the awakening, and we want to end the operations of al-Qaida…We call upon you not to be frightened, and to cooperate with us.”So-called “awakening councils” have sprouted up in communities across Iraq, where members swear allegiance to Iraq’s U.S.-backed government and disavow militants. U.S. officials say the councils have been key to tamping violence in recent months.The backlash against al-Qaida among Iraq’s Sunni Arab community began in Iraq’s western Anbar province last year. Americans recruited Sunni sheiks to help oust al-Qaida from their home turf, and the movement spread to former militants who once fought U.S. and Iraqi soldiers.Along with a U.S. force buildup of 30,000 troops, the Sunni fighters are credited with wresting neighborhoods back from the terror network – yielding a sharp drop in violence here in recent months.The top commander for U.S. forces in the Middle East, Navy Adm. William Fallon, said Friday that a grass-roots shift among Iraqis – both Sunni and Shia – against insurgents in their midst has been critical to the improvement.”Over the last year, many people in Iraq, I believe, have gotten fed up with the extremists on both sides,” Fallon told the AP in an interview during a stop in Hawaii on his way back to U.S. Central Command headquarters in Florida from a trip in Pakistan, Central Asia and Singapore.”The situation has dramatically improved in the last five months in particular,” he said. Some 50,000 Iraqis have signed up to be what the military calls “concerned local citizens” in a project Fallon compared to a neighborhood watch program.The U.S. military announced the death of another American soldier, killed a day earlier in an explosion in Diyala. Three others were wounded in the blast, it said.At least 3,861 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an AP count. The figure includes eight civilians working for the military.The military also said its troops detained 10 suspects in raids across central and northern parts of the country.Twenty people were killed or found dead across Iraq, including four civilians who died on minibuses hit by roadside bombs on their way to work, police said.One of the explosions, which missed the passing police patrol that was apparently its target, struck a minibus, killing two people in a predominantly Shiite area of Baghdad, an officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.One of the victims, Qais Hassoun, was riding in a nearby pickup truck. He spoke to AP Television News at a hospital in the Sadr City area, where the victims lay on gurneys in a grimy corridor.”We are just construction workers, trying to get to our jobs. We were riding in the minibus when the explosion went off,” Hassoun said.