BAGHDAD (Agencies) â€” Sunni tribal leaders who have vowed to drive Al Qaeda out of Iraq’s most restive province met the Shiite premier on Wednesday, marking what Washington hopes will be a breakthrough alliance against the group.
Sattar Buzayi, a Sunni sheikh from Anbar province who has emerged in recent weeks as a leader of a tribal alliance against Osama Ben Laden’s followers, said he and about 15 other sheikhs had offered their cooperation to Prime Minister Nuri Maliki.
“We agreed to cooperate,” Buzayi told Reuters. “We haven’t agreed to anything specific, but we agreed to cooperate.” Another tribal sheikh, Hameed Farhan, said most tribes backed the agreement, and that the best way forward would be for tribesmen to be recruited into the army and police in Anbar.
“If the government gives us support, you will see what we can do,” he told Iraqiya state television, adding that Maliki had promised to send Iraqi forces to Anbar.
Maliki’s office issued a statement praising the chiefs for their commitment to fighting the group. It was the first time he had met the sheikhs since they pledged to fight Al Qaeda in a meeting two weeks ago.
But in the north, Iraq’s Kurdish regional government raised the threat of secession on Wednesday if the Baghdad government did not drop its claims to a say in the development of oil resources in their districts.
The premier of the autonomous Kurdistan region accused Iraqi Oil Minister Hussain Shahristani of trying to “sabotage” foreign investment in Kurdish oil.
“The people of Kurdistan chose to be in a voluntary union with Iraq on the basis of the constitution,” Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said in a statement on his official website.
“If Baghdad ministers refuse to abide by that constitution, the people of Kurdistan reserve the right to reconsider our choice.” Leaders of the Kurds, about one in five of Iraq’s 26 million people, regularly remind Baghdad politicians that they reserve a right to secede, but are mindful of hostility to their independence from their US allies as well as from neighbouring Turkey, Iran and Syria, which also have big Kurdish populations.
On Wednesday, US troops killed eight people â€” four of them women â€” after taking heavy fire during a raid northeast of Baghdad on Wednesday morning on a suspected â€œterrorist’sâ€ house, the US command said.
But relatives of those killed disputed the US account, saying their family had nothing to do with any terrorist group.
“This is an ugly criminal act by the US soldiers against Iraqi citizens,” said Manal Jassim, who lost her parents and other relatives in the attack, told Associated Press Television News.
The country’s major Sunni clerical organisation, the Association of Muslim Scholars, condemned the attack as a “terrorist massacre”. The attack in Baqouba, 60 kilometres northeast of Baghdad, came as a new poll by the US State Department and independent researchers indicated a strong majority of Iraqis want US-led military forces to withdraw immediately from the country. The poll, obtained by The Washington Post, showed, for example, that nearly three-quarters of Baghdad residents would feel safer if the US and other foreign forces left Iraq with 65 per cent favouring an immediate pullout.
Meanwhile, the top US military spokesman in Iraq, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell told reporters there had been a spike in violence in Baghdad with the onset of the Holy Month of Ramadan, which officially began on Monday.
Suicide attacks were at their highest level ever, he said without giving any figures.
“We are seeing an increase in attacks, as anticipated. The terrorists and illegal armed groups are punching back in an effort to discredit the government of Iraq and more specifically the Baghdad security plan,” Caldwell said.
“This has been a tough week.” He said that murders and executions are currently the number one cause of civilian deaths in Baghdad, and operations against sectarian death squads have been stepped up.
Since mid-July, 29 death squad cell leaders, and 254 members, have been killed or captured, he said. There were 14 operations in the past week, resulting in two cell leaders and 42 members killed or captured.
“Iraqi security forces are making a concerted effort to defeat the insurgency and stop sectarian violence,” Caldwell said. “Specifically Iraqi security forces are taking the fight to death squads within the Baghdad area.” On Wednesday alone, the bodies of 15 people found in various areas around Baghdad were turned in to the morgue in Kut, 160 kilometres southeast of the capital. Most showed signs of torture and had their hands and legs bound, while five were beheaded.
After evening prayers in the Meshahda Sunni Mosque in the northern Huriyah neighbourhood of Baghdad, 10 people were killed and 11 others wounded when a shootout broke out between gunmen and armed men standing near the mosque, police said.
Meanwhile, the prime minister’s military office said another leader of the 1920 Revolution Brigades had been arrested Tuesday night in the village of Al Jazira.
The group is believed to be responsible for numerous attacks against US forces and a series of kidnappings.
The operation follows the arrest of another leader of the group and seven aides early Saturday in the same area, about 60 miles north of Baghdad. Authorities have not released the insurgents’ names, citing security concerns.
Another 13 people died in insurgent violence around Iraq, including five in a car bomb in southwestern Baghdad, police said.
The US command also announced the deaths of a Marine and a US soldier, both of whom were killed in action Monday western Anbar province of Iraq. Another soldier was killed Wednesday in Baghdad after his patrol came under small-arms fire, the military said.
Operation Together Forward, a security drive to clear the capital neighbourhood by neighbourhood was launched this summer after US generals warned escalating sectarian violence was leading towards civil war. Sweeps have been started or completed in about half the neighbourhoods of the capital so far.
As of September 25, 95,757 buildings had been cleared, 124 prisoners taken and 1,785 weapons seized in the operation.
As part of the infrastructure rebuilding component, 187,739 cubic metres of trash has been removed from the streets, Caldwell said.
There is a noticeable difference in the neighbourhoods that have been targeted so far, Caldwell said.
“When you look at the areas we’ve operated in, Dora used to be the highest amount of murders and executions within the entire city of Baghdad, and today now it’s really probably the lowest level within the entire city because of the operations,” he said.
In the southern city of Basra, British and Iraqi troops launched a similar security operation Wednesday aimed at rooting out corrupt police, pacifying the city and helping residents rebuild over the next few months, the British military said.
Some 2,300 Iraqi army troops and 1,000 British soldiers started the security drive dubbed “Operation Sinbad,” with another 2,000 British troops conducting operations in the surrounding area, said British forces spokesman Maj. Charlie Burbridge.
In June, Maliki declared a state of emergency in Basra following a rise in violence among mostly Shiite groups competing for power in the predominantly Shiite city.
Since January 2005, the city has fallen under the influence of Shiite groups, which have infiltrated the police and local government institutions there.
A key component of the operation is a crackdown on police corruption, and a special team will be going station-by-station to weed out those involved in it, Burbridge said.
In the US-led raid in Baqouba, American soldiers came under fire when approaching the home of a suspect linked to the leaders of Al Qaeda in Iraq, the US command said in a statement.
US troops killed two terrorist suspects, then called in air strikes “due to the heavy volume of enemy fire from the target building,” the military said. After the attack, they found the bodies of two more terror suspects and four women inside the building.
Three people were wounded, including two suspected terrorists who were later detained, the military said.
The troops also found weapons and a global positioning system, the military said.
A family member said all eight people killed were relatives and disputed that they had any links to a terrorist organisation. “The Americans killed my relatives who had no guilt or relation with any group,” Saleh Ali said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press.
Outside the pockmarked house, which relatives said belonged to a man named Mohammad Jassim, bullet casings littered the ground and bloodstained the sand. Family members cried and consoled one another as the corpses of the women were taken away.
“They were innocent people,” said Manal Jassim, the homeowner’s daughter. “We were sleeping when they entered our house at dawn. I found my father, mother, aunt and sister-in-law laying dead. We were 11-member family. Eight were killed.” Caldwell said the American patrol had broadcast messages for people to leave the building peacefully but gunfire was their only response.
“It’s extremely unfortunate whenever there’s a loss of life. And nobody’s quite sure what the connection was to all those people that were firing their weapons from that home. But it’s unfortunate that anybody ever has to die,” he told reporters in Baghdad.