U.S. Troops Move Into Insurgent Area North Of Baghdad As New Village Massacre Reported

Tuesday, July 17th 2007, 4:01 pm
By: News On 6

BAGHDAD (AP) _ U.S. troops stormed Tuesday into an insurgent-controlled area of a turbulent province where police reported that gunmen _ some wearing military clothing _ had massacred 29 Shiite villagers the night before.

The fighting escalated north of Baghdad as America's top general said parts of Iraq are undergoing a ``sea change'' in security, notably Ramadi where Sunni tribes have turned against al-Qaida in Iraq. Attacks against U.S. forces in that city have dropped dramatically.

But success in some areas is tempered by violence elsewhere and continued doubts over the ability of Iraq's political leaders to set aside their differences and achieve a lasting peace.

American soldiers backed by tanks, helicopters and at least one F-16 jetfighter rolled into the eastern part of Baqouba, the capital of Diyala province.

Gunfire could be heard in the main market district, and Sunni imams in four mosques used loudspeakers to call on their followers to fight the Americans, residents said by telephone. They spoke on condition of anonymity over fears for their safety.

U.S. and Iraqi forces seized the western part of Baqouba last month and had been expected to mount a major offensive to drive al-Qaida in Iraq and other insurgents from the rest of the city, 35 miles north of Baghdad. The Islamic State of Iraq, a front group for al-Qaida in Iraq, has declared Baqouba as its capital.

Sunni extremists were believed to be moving out of Baqouba in anticipation of a U.S. attack, seeking shelter with friendly tribes to the north and east.

Elsewhere in Diyala, police Col. Ragheb Radhi al-Omairi said 29 members of a Shiite tribe were massacred overnight when dozens of suspected Sunni gunmen raided their village near Muqdadiyah, about 20 miles northeast of Baqouba. The dead included four women, al-Omairi said.

The attackers rode into the village in several cars and trucks about midnight. Some of them were dressed in military clothing, police said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose information. The massacre lasted about a half hour, according to al-Omairi.

A provincial medical official said the bodies were taken to a clinic in Balad Ruz to be handed over to their families for burial. He spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety.

In Diyala, American troops have been using local Sunni tribesmen, including breakaway members of insurgent groups, to help fight al-Qaida. The tactic has proven effective in Ramadi and other parts of Anbar province.

Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hailed the progress achieved in Ramadi, where violence was once commonplace, saying ``what I'm hearing now is a sea change that is taking place in many places here.''

``It's no longer a matter of pushing al-Qaida out of Ramadi, for example, but rather _ now that they have been pushed out _ helping the local police and the local army have a chance to get their feet on the ground and set up their systems,'' Pace said.

Pace's assessment drew skepticism from several private American security analysts, who questioned whether supporting Sunni tribes would set the stage for future conflict with the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government.

Kathleen Hicks of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies acknowledged that parts of Iraq had seen improved security but she ``wouldn't describe it as a sea change at all.''

``The bigger question is whether any kind of security progress at the pace we're likely to see is going to translate into a political settlement,'' Hicks said. ``I think the answer is no.''

Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution saw no evidence of any lasting security improvements anywhere in Iraq. He said Pace's comment ``strains your credibility,'' especially on a day when a National Intelligence Estimate predicted that al-Qaida would likely ``leverage'' its contacts in Iraq to mount an attack on American soil.

In a bid to improve security, U.S. forces have launched offensives in and around Baghdad to clear insurgents from sanctuaries used to mount attacks into the capital. The military said Marines began an offensive last weekend along the Euphrates River _ a major route for smuggling weapons and fighters from Syria.

During those operations, a precision-guided artillery round killed the most wanted al-Qaida figure south of the capital. Abu Jurah, a major cell leader, died Saturday in the Arab Jabour area just south of Baghdad, a U.S. statement said.

But military operations have failed to push Iraqi politicians into power-sharing agreements _ the key to lasting peace. Last week, the White House acknowledged that little progress had been made on 18 benchmarks, including bills to share oil revenues and meet Sunni aspirations.

On Tuesday, the leader of a 30-member parliamentary bloc loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced an end to a five-week boycott of the assembly, which had stalled work on major legislation.

Nasser al-Rubaie said the decision was made after the government agreed to rebuild a Shiite mosque in Samarra which was destroyed in two bombings and to secure the highway from Baghdad to the shrine.

Pressure is now expected to mount on the Sunnis to end their boycott, which began over the ouster of the Sunni speaker of parliament last month. Sunni leaders say agreement is near on ending the protest.

However, the Sadrists also oppose a number of bills sought by the government, including the oil bill. That could make it tougher for benchmark legislation to win approval.

In Baghdad, Tuesday's deadliest car bombing occurred when a suicide driver detonated his vehicle near an Iraqi army patrol in Zayouna, a mostly Shiite area of eastern Baghdad. The attack killed 10 people, including six civilians, and wounded three civilians, police said.

Elsewhere in the capital, a car bomb exploded across the street from the Iranian Embassy, killing four civilians. The late morning blast took place a few hundred yards north of the U.S.-controlled Green Zone and sent a huge cloud of black smoke over the city.

All the Baghdad police officers spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release information.

In the northern city of Mosul, nine people were killed when a suicide car bomber attacked the entrance to an Iraqi army base, police Brig. Gen. Abdul Karim al-Jubouri said. All but one of the dead were civilians.

Meanwhile, Iraq's Interior Ministry organized a trip for journalists Tuesday to a Baghdad prison, showing them hundreds of detainees, many of whom said they are well-treated and not subjected to torture.

Torture is believed widespread among the poorly trained police force, which has suffered heavy losses at the hands of Sunni insurgents, Shiite militiamen and criminal gangs since Saddam Hussein's fall in 2003.