Iraqi villagers try to protect homes |

Iraqi villagers try to protect homes

Lee Keath

BAGHDAD – Sunni extremists have seized control of a remote village northeast of Baghdad in a fierce battle with residents who pleaded for rescue by Iraqi army and police as they tried to defend their homes, the deputy provincial governor said Tuesday.The reported fighting in Sherween, located in Diyala province on Baghdad’s northern gates, underlines the continued struggle in the area where militants believed to be from al-Qaida in Iraq have reportedly left graves of victims in areas under their grip.It also points to a critical problem facing U.S. commanders: the lack of enough fully trained Iraqi soldiers and police to provide security in areas beyond the scope of American military operations. The weaknesses of Iraqi security forces – and questions over how soon they could control the country on their own – have complicated the war debate in Washington as domestic pressure mounts for an American withdrawal.Still not readyU.S. commanders acknowledge Iraqi security forces are unable to stand on their own despite three years of efforts to train them. Devastating suicide bombings north of Baghdad over the weekend raised sharp criticism from Iraqi politicians that the country’s troops were failing to provide protection.For the past three weeks, U.S. troops have been fighting to dislodge insurgents who had turned the Diyala provincial capital, Baqouba, into their stronghold and were using it to launch attacks in Baghdad 35 miles away.Soldiers have found whole streets and buildings wired with explosives, bomb and weapons factories and prisons run by extremists. They’ve also discovered, according to Iraqi officials, the bodies of 35 people apparently slain by militants and dumped in a village just outside of Baqouba.Working in the outskirtsFleeing insurgents appear to be trying to capture more territory farther north in Diyala, where Iraqi security forces are fewer. Iraqi officials say the extremists have held sway for months in numerous towns and villages and parts of larger cities across the sprawling mountainous agricultural province, intimidating residents and imposing strict Islamic law.There were few details of the fighting in Sherween, a village of 7,000 Shiites and Sunnis some 35 miles northeast of Baqouba. But the assault appeared to be an attempt by extremists to move into a new area, where residents say the two communities have gotten along relatively well.Diyala Deputy Gov. Auf Rahim said a Sherween resident called him Tuesday and said insurgents launched an attack on the village the day before and that fighting was still raging.”Come help us or they will slaughter us all,” Rahim said the resident told him in the call. Armed villagers were fighting back, but the attackers appeared to have largely gained control, Rahim told The Associated Press.Rahim said the caller told him 25 militants and 18 residents were killed and 40 people wounded in the fighting. The casualty figures could not be independently confirmed. The resident said the fighters belonged to al-Qaida in Iraq, according to Rahim.A resident of the town of Dali Abbas, which neighbors Sherween, told AP “the area has come under attack since yesterday, and the people of the village are the only ones defending it.” He spoke on condition his name not be used for fear of reprisals.Insurgets in controlAn Iraqi army officer in the Mansouria region close to Sherween confirmed that insurgents appeared to be in control of the village. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.Al-Qaida in Iraq and other Sunni radicals took control of much of Diyala last fall after Sunni tribesmen in western Anbar province began turning against them.Al-Qaida in Iraq emerged several years ago under the leadership of Abu Musa al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian radical who was killed last year in a U.S. airstrike in Diyala. The Iraqi chapter’s relationship to the network led by Osama bin Laden remains a topic of debate among experts.U.S. commanders have said al-Qaida in Iraq and its allies are the main target of the Baqouba offensive – reflecting an American strategy to woo other Iraqi Sunni insurgent groups.The Baqouba offensive is part of an intensified security sweep in and around Baghdad aimed at pacifying the capital to boost the beleaguered Iraqi government and allow it to pass benchmark political reforms that U.S. officials hope will draw Sunnis away from the insurgency.U.S. commanders say they are making progress in clearing Baqouba, but they say many insurgent leaders escaped the city.In late June, U.S. forces found a grave with six bodies in the village of Ahamir on Baqouba’s northern outskirts, according to a spokesman at Multinational Forces-Iraq in Baghdad.The U.S. command in Baqouba did not respond to e-mails from The Associated Press seeking more details. But a freelance journalist, Michael Yon, embedded with U.S. troops in Baqouba, was able to visit the gravesite with an American cavalry unit last month.Yon said he was told by military personnel in the vicinity that the killings were presumably carried out by al-Qaida in Iraq militants.According to Yon’s description, the village appeared to be abandoned. Beside the Americans, Iraqi troops were present helping to dig up the bodies. Some of the disinterred corpses appeared to be fairly recently killed and others showed greater decomposition, suggesting they were older graves, according to Yon, who posted photographs of some of the bodies on the Web.This week, an official at Diyala’s Health Ministry control office, which keeps track of bodies, told AP that authorities had found the bodies of 35 men at Ahamir and brought them to Baqouba morgue. All had been shot and some showed signs of torture, including whippings and branding, and appeared to have been killed recently, said the official. The men were Sunnis, according to families who retrieved the bodies, said the official.It was not immediately clear whether the 35 bodies included those seen by Yon.An Iraqi army officer who was in Ahamir confirmed the discovery of the bodies and said troops found a room apparently used as a prison by the militants. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information to the press.The newly reported fighting in Sherween, the operation to dislodge militants from Baqouba proper, and the bodies found in Ahamir point to an ongoing challenge in those areas to both the Iraqi government and U.S. forces.As Iraqi military spokesman Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Askari told reporters Monday: “The centers of leadership and primary control of all the terrorist organizations are located in Diyala.”

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