BAGHDAD (AP) â€” US forces raided a funeral gathering and detained 60 men suspected of links with an Al Qaeda cell blamed for a spate of car bomb attacks in Baghdad, the US military said Saturday.
Also Saturday, 16 people were killed in violence across the country and 15 bodies with bullet wounds were discovered, including 12 fished out of the Tigris River in one place, officials said.
The arrests in Baghdad were the first major roundup of suspected insurgents since US reinforcements started streaming into the capital last week as part of a new crackdown on violence.
A statement by the US military said the arrests were made Friday in Arab Jabour, a southern neighbourhood of Baghdad and a stronghold of Sunni insurgents.
The 60 detained men are believed to be associated with a senior Iraqi Al Qaeda leader in a cell that â€œspecialises in bomb makingâ€ and carrying out car bomb attacks, the statement said.
â€œThe group has been reported to be planning and conducting training for future attacks,â€ it said.
â€œMultiple forms of credible intelligence led the assault force to the location, later determined to be a funeral gathering, where the suspects were detained.â€ Baghdad and the Sunni-dominated Anbar province west of the capital are centres of the Sunni insurgency being waged with bombings, suicide attacks, mortar barrages and armed assaults by gunmen.
Attention has also focused on Baghdad due to a rise in Sunni-Shiite bloodshed, which US officials describe as the greatest danger facing Iraq’s new government of national unity. Between 1,000 and 1,500 people have been killed every month in the Baghdad area since January.
On Saturday, bound and blindfolded bodies of 12 men were found in the Tigris River in Suwayrah, 40 kilometres south of Baghdad, at one of the metal grills fixed in the river to block weeds and plants from floating downstream.
The victims were aged between 35 and 45 years, and most of them were shot in the head and the rest in the chest, said Mamoun Rubaie, an official at the morgue in Kut where the bodies were bought. Three more bodies were discovered Saturday â€” one in Baghdad and two in Kifil in Hillah province south of the capital.
In addition, 16 people were killed in separate attacks, including two in the southern city of Basra when a bomb exploded at a shop selling CDs featuring sermons and interviews of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr.
US commanders are rushing nearly 12,000 American and Iraqi troops into the capital to control the violence.
Still, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said Saturday he would not rule out US troop reductions this year.
Pace, who arrived in Baghdad after an overnight flight from Washington, said he would consult with top commanders on the outlook for a turnaround in the violence and the need for US troops.
â€œThere is still the potential to reduce the number of troopsâ€ this year, he said without elaborating.
â€œWe thought as recently as a month or so ago that we were going to be able to come downâ€ in the numbers, he said in an interview aboard his plane. â€œWhat changed was the increase in sectarian violence.â€ Much of the violence is blamed on Sadr’s Mehdi Army, which launched two uprisings against US forces in November 2004, resulting in heavy fighting.
In an interview with The New York Times published Saturday, the US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said Iran was instigating Shiite factions to step up attacks on US forces in retaliation for the Israeli assault on Hizbollah in Lebanon.
Iran’s prodding has led to a surge in mortar and rocket attacks on the fortified Green Zone, the compound that houses the main components of the Iraqi government and the US embassy, Khalilzad was quoted as saying.
The Shiite fighters behind the attacks are members of splinter groups of the Mehdi Army, he said. The newspaper quoted unnamed officials of the Sadr Organisation as saying that rogue elements of the Mehdi Army are not under their control and carry out attacks without guidance from Sadr.