By Jonathan Finer and Saad Sarhan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 20, 2005
BAGHDAD, May 19 -- Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari called on neighboring countries Thursday to help secure Iraq's borders, which U.S. officials have repeatedly said are being crossed by foreign fighters to launch attacks in Iraq.
Speaking at a news conference with Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick, Jafari made his plea one day after a U.S. military official said that a meeting of insurgents in Syria a month ago led to the wave of attacks that have killed more than 400 people in less than a month.
"We know there is infiltration of non-Iraqis coming through the borders to do sabotage activities in Iraq," Jafari said. "It is up to our geographical neighbors. We are keen to preserve relations between us and neighboring countries."
Zoellick, whose visit came four days after one by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, echoed Rice's call for Syria to help crack down on insurgent activity. "Countries are responsible for what occurs on their territory," he said.
Attacks on Iraqi religious leaders continued Thursday, as a Shiite Muslim cleric was shot to death in Baghdad. Meanwhile, the U.S. military announced that a shootout involving U.S. forces and insurgent gunmen at the home in Mosul of a National Assembly member had left eight of his guards dead.
In Baghdad, three U.S. soldiers were killed in insurgent attacks, the military said. Another died Wednesday in a mortar attack on a U.S. base in Ramadi, west of the capital.
Also Thursday, Ali Hameed, an Oil Ministry engineer, was killed in a drive-by shooting while leaving his home in western Baghdad. Several Iraqi police officers were among those killed in other attacks around the country, and late Thursday night, at least two people were killed in a car bombing near a Shiite mosque in Baghdad, according to news service reports.
Jafari, who has said he believes insurgents are determined to foment conflict between Iraq's Sunni Muslim Arabs and the Shiite majority, also said at the news conference that his Shiite-led government would soon release some Sunni clerics detained by police.
Sunni leaders have demanded that Jafari expedite the processing of detainees, and the government has begun responding to Rice's call to reach out to moderate Sunnis to help undermine the insurgency.
But another top government official seemed to step back Thursday from a recent policy change that Sunni religious leaders had praised. Defense Minister Sadoun Dulaimi, a Sunni Arab who announced Monday that Iraqi soldiers would no longer conduct raids on mosques in their fight against insurgents, was quoted in Baghdad's al-Sabah al-Jadeed newspaper as saying that "if the imam of a mosque agreed to turn his mosque into a military barracks, we shall deal with that mosque on the basis it is a military barracks."
Adding to the sectarian tension, the body of an aide to a prominent Shiite cleric was pulled from a car at the bottom of the Tigris River. Muhammed Allaq, the Baghdad representative of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Saeed Hakim, had been shot to death. Hakim is one of the four influential Shiite religious leaders based in the city of Najaf.
"We condemn this crime and any attack on the religious men who work for the benefit of society," said Muhammed Hussein Hakim, a spokesman for the grand ayatollah's office in Najaf.
A statement from the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, said insurgents were focusing on religious figures because they are easy prey. "The government is capable of protecting itself, so the insurgents are after soft targets," Sistani's statement said.
In the northern city of Mosul, a firefight involving U.S. forces called to the home of an Iraqi National Assembly member left at least eight of his guards dead and several wounded Thursday, according to military and hospital officials.
Fawaz Jarba, who belongs to a prominent Sunni tribe, said he was entering his house when gunmen pulled up in five cars and started shooting. Jarba said he telephoned the U.S. military for assistance; when a U.S. helicopter arrived, he said, it riddled his home with bullets by mistake.
A U.S. military statement Thursday night said a helicopter sent to the scene traded gunfire with "terrorists" on a nearby rooftop, injuring three. It said eight of Jarba's guards died but did not indicate who had killed them. The incident is under investigation, the statement said.
Jarba said two other guards died later from wounds, the Associated Press reported.
Sarhan reported from Najaf. Correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer and special correspondents Naseer Nouri, Omar Fekeiki and Bassam Sebti in Baghdad and Dlovan Brwari in Mosul contributed to this report.