BAGHDAD (AP) â€” American and Iraqi troops pushing through a desolate area of Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland rounded up dozens more suspected insurgents, including alleged killers of a television journalist, US and Iraqi officials said Saturday.
The three-day-old sweep through villages 60 miles north of Baghdad stirred growing unease among leading Sunni Muslims.Â
One called it a needless “escalation” at a time of difficult negotiations over forming a broad-based government representing all of Iraq’s communities.
In Baghdad, meanwhile, a dozen more bodies were found as a shadowy war of Shiite-Sunni reprisals went on. Police late Saturday shed light on one bloody corner of that underground war, announcing they had captured a Sunni extremist who confessed to leading a gang that killed hundreds of Shiites in an area just south of Baghdad in recent months.
Five gang members were captured along with alleged ringleader Mohammed Janabi, police said, without providing additional detail about the alleged killings.
Also on Saturday, Shiite Muslim pilgrims heading to the holy city of Karbala again came under attack, with a roadside bomb killing one and wounding five. Reports of violence came from elsewhere as well: An oil tanker driver shot dead 90 kilometres southeast of Baghdad, a tribal sheikh slain 50 kilometres west of the capital, a car bombing near a US base in the northern city of Tal Afar in which the suicide driver was the only casualty.
Visiting Baghdad, British Defence Secretary John Reid expressed concern about “a greater degree of sectarian violence,” but said he didn’t believe civil war was imminent. “The most urgent need at the moment is the speedy formation of a government of national unity,” he said.
In a US radio address the day before the third anniversary of the US-British invasion, President Bush said the violence in Iraq “has created a new sense of urgency” among Iraqi leaders to form such a government.
Those leaders â€” representatives of the squabbling Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs in Iraq’s new parliament â€” were taking a break from intensive all-party negotiations to observe Monday’s major Shiite holiday and Tuesday’s Kurdish new year.
They are deadlocked over how to apportion the most powerful jobs in the new government, as minority factions seek to limit domination by Iraq’s Shiite majority.
In the counterinsurgency sweep, through a 100-square-mile area of semidesert northeast of the Tigris River town of Samarra, Iraqi soldiers and units of the 101st Airborne Division had detained about 80 suspected insurgents as of Saturday, said Lt. Col. Edward S. Loomis, a US spokesman.
Seventeen were released after questioning, he said.
Among those detained were six people, not further identified, allegedly responsible for the March 11 killing of Amjad Hameed, a journalist for the Iraqi television network Iraqiya, and his driver, the interim Iraqi government said.
The US military reported that two 101st Airborne soldiers were killed Thursday by indirect fire â€” usually meaning mortars â€” at the Speicher operating base farther north up the Tigris. The deaths, which Loomis said were not directly related to the sweep, were the second and third involving division soldiers on the day Operation Swarmer began.
At least 2,314 American military personnel have died since the Iraq war began in the early hours of March 20, 2003.
The security net thrown down by Swarmer, described as the largest Iraq operation by helicopter-borne troops in three years, has angered residents of the area, which was a political stronghold of the Sunni-dominated government of Saddam Hussein ousted by the 2003 invasion.
The Iraqi Red Crescent said it sent tents and food to Jelam, 15 miles northeast of Samarra, to help people driven from their village by the military operation.
One leading Sunni Arab, Iraqi presidential security adviser Wafiq Samaraei, urged that the operation ease restrictions on traffic across Samarra’s vital Tigris River bridge, and cease “disarming the people of Samarra of their own authorised weapons.” He said the arms were needed to confront the “Zarqawi terrorists.” Many Sunni spokesmen differentiate between what they see as an Iraqi nationalist resistance against the US occupation and Islamic fundamentalist terrorists in Iraq, many foreign, led by people like Abu Mussab Zarqawi, linked to Osama Ben Laden’s Al Qaeda.
“Many young people were detained, some of them innocent, and I call for their quick release,” Samaraie told a TV interviewer. But he also called on Samarra’s youths “to lay down their arms and join the political process.” A Sunni leader in parliament, Tarek Hashimi, told reporters the operation has come at too delicate a moment in Iraq. “There was no need to escalate military acts as the country is passing through a dangerous political dilemma,” he said Friday.
But Iraq’s Shiite interim prime minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, described the sweep as a necessary “preemptive operation.” In other action, Iraqi counter-insurgency troops staged a pre-dawn raid in an area near Baqouba, 27 miles north of Baghdad, touching off a clash in which two gunmen were killed, one was wounded and 18 were arrested, including a Jordanian, Brig. Saman Talabani said.
Along with ammunition and arms, the soldiers seized computer discs of fatwas â€” edicts â€” issued by Islamic clerics to kill Iraqi police and soldiers, Talabani said.