Shiites, Sunnis forge peace as Japanese hostage feared slain in Iraq

BAGHDAD (AP) — Two of Iraq’s most influential Shiite and Sunni organisations agreed Saturday to try and make peace as the government prepared to take its war against the insurgency to Baghdad’s violent streets.
The new effort to ease sectarian tensions, which threaten to plunge Iraq into civil strife, came as attacks killed a US soldier and at least 45 Iraqis over the past two days — including three suicide bombers and three men killed when a roadside bomb they planted exploded prematurely.

An Al Qaeda affiliate, the Ansar Sunnah Army, also announced the death of a Japanese contractor it abducted earlier this month. Another affiliate, Abu Mussab Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq, allegedly claimed responsibility on the Internet for twin suicide car bombings in Sinjar. The attacks, 120 kilometres northwest of Mosul city, killed seven Iraqis and injured another 38 at the entrance to an Iraqi military base, according to hospital officials in both places.

Iraqi police and army units prepared to launch a massive crackdown Sunday in Baghdad they have code-named “Operation Lightning,” according to defence and security officials.

“The defence ministry’s mission for Operation Lightning will begin,” Col. Hussam Mansour of the defence ministry said.

He said it includes helping cordon off the city and erecting hundreds of checkpoints in and around the capital.

The operation was expected to intensify during the week.

Operation Lightning, which was announced last Thursday, will see more than 40,000 Iraqi soldiers and policemen, supported by US troops, deploying to man the new checkpoints and later begin street-to-street sweeps.

They hope to catch or flush out the insurgents responsible for a wave of violence that has left more than 690 people dead since the country’s new Shiite-led government was announced April 28, according to an Associated Press count.

In an effort to mitigate escalating sectarian tensions, officials from the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, considered close to some insurgent groups, met with representatives from the Badr Brigades — the military wing of Iraq’s largest Shiite party, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Organised by virulently anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, a Shiite, the gathering aimed to smother heated accusations that began earlier this month when the association’s leader, Harith Dhari, accused the Badr Brigades of killing Sunnis and executing their clerics. A number of Shiite clerics were also killed.

The brigades not only denied the charges, they accused the Sunni association of failing to condemn the insurgency and of trying to “push Iraq into a sectarian conflict.” “We are all Muslims, and usually problems happen between one family. We want to solve them on the basis of Islamic brotherhood,” association official Isam Al Rawi said.

“There are still some differences that are not settled yet … there are still some differences in points of view.” Large portraits of the burly, black-bearded cleric Sadr adorned the walls inside the building, located in a narrow back alley in northern Baghdad’s suburb of Kazimiyah, a Shiite stronghold.

“We overcame many obstacles. The two parties agreed to serving Iraq and to preserve its unity,” Sadr official Abdul-Hadi Al Daraji said. “The brothers from the Sunni scholars received proposals from the Badr Brigades and the Badr Brigades also received proposals from the Sunni scholars.” He said another meeting would be held during the week and a large national gathering would be called once the crisis between the two organisations was resolved.

Japanese contractor Akihiko Saito, 44, was among a group of five foreign workers — four of them earlier confirmed dead — who were ambushed in the vast Anbar province west of Baghdad.

More than 200 foreigners have been abducted, and at least 30 killed, in Iraq during the raging two-year insurgency, which US-led forces and the new Shiite-led government have struggled to eradicate.

Iraqi confirmation of Saito’s death followed Friday’s Internet release of a video showing the bloodied body of an Asian man, apparently Saito, lying on his back. An Ansar statement said he died after being wounded during clashes after the ambush.

A US soldier died from wounds from a homemade bomb during combat operations near Diyara, west of Baghdad, the military said Saturday. The soldier, who died Friday, was assigned to the 155th Brigade Combat Team, II Marine Expeditionary Force.

As of Saturday, at least 1,655 US military members have died since the Iraq war began in March 2003, according to an AP count.

The Iraqi army captured two Iraqis Saturday they suspect shot down an American helicopter and killed its two-man crew on Thursday near Buhriz, north of Baghdad, said Maj. Steven Warren of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team.

In other violence, three Iraqi soldiers were killed and two were wounded Friday when insurgents attacked an army patrol about 16 kilometres north of Hillah in an area south of Baghdad controlled by Polish-led forces, Maj. Wieslaw Adamski said Saturday.

A roadside bomb blast targeting a US convoy in Mosul killed three Iraqi civilians, including a 10-year-old boy, and injured nine, said Dr Saad Khalid from Jumhouri hospital.

Ten Iraqis were killed and their bodies dumped Friday in the volatile western border city of Qaim after returning from a pilgrimage to a holy site in neighbouring Syria, police commander Brig. Abdul-Wahab Adily said Saturday.

Two civilians were killed and three wounded when clashes erupted late Friday between militants and Iraqi soldiers in Mahmoudiya, about 30 kilometres south of Baghdad, said Dawood Taie of Mahmoudiya Hospital.

Gunmen killed another five people Friday during a car exhibition in the nearby city of Latifiyah, police Capt. Muthana Khalid Ali said Saturday.

Ali said police have also found the bullet-riddled bodies of five Iraqis in a car on a road in the volatile Anbar province.

A suicide car bomb attack on a police patrol instead killed three civilians Friday in Tikrit, north of Baghdad, police Lt. Khudhair Ali said. Six policemen were among 24 people wounded.

The Iraqi army scored a significant success Saturday when they discovered a large cache of weapons in south Baghdad’s Dora neighbourhood.

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