27 die in Iraq as US detains Sunni chief `in error’

BAGHDAD (AFP) — A double suicide attack killed at least 27 people in Iraq on Monday, while in an embarrassing turnaround US forces released a moderate Sunni political leader they admitted had been detained “by mistake.”

In the eastern province of Diyala, an Iraqi air force aircraft crashed with four US troops and one Iraqi onboard, and the US military said an American soldier had died Saturday in the northern city of Mosul.

Meanwhile, Al Qaeda’s leader in Iraq Abu Musab Zarqawi said he had been “lightly” wounded but was still leading the “Crusaders and enemies of religion”, in a voice message attributed to him posted Monday on the Internet.

In Baghdad, Iraqi and US troops with sniffer dogs scoured infamous Haifa Street as part of Operation Lightning, touted as the biggest domestic security operation since former strongman Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.

In the Shiite town of Hilla, south of Baghdad, two suicide bombers detonated their explosives belts in a crowd of about 500 former police commandos outside local government offices, police said.

“We have 27 people killed and 118 wounded,” an interior ministry source said.

The policemen had come to collect back-pay in the town, where a bomb in February killed 118 people, the largest single attack since the US-led invasion of March 2003.

Zarqawi’s group, Al Qaeda Organisation in the Land of Two Rivers, claimed responsibility for the latest attacks in Internet statements.

One of the bombers “immersed himself in a crowd of members of Iraqi special forces who were protesting in front of a police station demanding higher salaries… he blew himself up and Allah annihilated them,” it said.

In a separate statement, a voice said to be that of Zarqawi — Iraq’s most wanted fugitive — sought to put order among a discordant chorus of statements about his health.

“After the information according to which I was seriously wounded… I want to reassure you that all this is pure rumour and totally unfounded… but there are light wounds,” said the voice.

“I am currently with my brothers and my people in the land of Mesopotamia, where I am participating in combats against the Crusaders and the enemies of religion,” he said, in the message dated March 27.

Around 700 people have been killed in attacks this month, in a surge of violence that followed the May 8 inauguration of Iraq’s first democratically elected post-Saddam government.

In Baghdad, US forces acknowledged they had mistakenly detained Sunni leader Mohsen Abdel Hamid and his three sons in a dawn raid.

“This morning coalition forces detained and interviewed Mohsen Abdel Hamid. Following the interview it was determined that he was detained by mistake and should be released,” a US military statement said.

“Coalition forces regret any inconvenience and acknowledge Mr Hamid’s cooperation in resolving this matter.”

The Islamic Party leader told journalists following his release: “American soldiers burst in, tied my hands and led me to an unknown place before flying me by helicopter to another place where I was interrogated all day long…”I don’t yet know the reason for my arrest nor that of my sons.”

The Islamic Party issued a statement demanding that others taken into custody, including two of Hamid’s sons, be released, an explanation for the raid and a formal apology.

The party also called for the return of money and documents it said were seized in the raid.

The US military refused to say what had led to the blunder that is likely to anger Iraq’s once-powerful Sunni minority, already marginalised since they largely boycotted January’s elections.

Also in Baghdad, around 300 Iraqi soldiers backed by some 60 elite US special forces carried out a three-hour sweep on Haifa Street in a search for arms and explosives.

Operation Lightning aims to cut off rebel access to Baghdad, which is to be divided into 22 separate sectors in two areas east and west of the Tigris River.

Once around 675 fixed checkpoints and an undetermined number of flying roadblocks are established, the sectors are to be searched street by street to flush out fighters who have sown terror in the Iraqi capital.

Near the rebel hotbed of Baquba, where two US troops died when their helicopter was shot down last week, Iraqi forces said they had detained seven people in possession of anti-aircraft guns.

The Al Qaeda linked group of Ansar Sunna, meanwhile, claimed responsibility for the killing of an Iraqi police general who was grabbed from his home in northern Iraq and shot on Sunday.

And a Kurdish tribal leader in Mosul died in Monday after being shot by unknown attackers. Sheikh Bashar Abdel-Karim Dubrani was reportedly a partisan of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Massoud Barzani.

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