By Ellen Knickmeyer and Muhanned Saif Aldin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
BAGHDAD, Oct. 16 -- Families fled in search of safety Monday as open warfare raged for a fourth day between Shiite militias and armed Sunni men in Tigris River towns north of Baghdad. Militias allied with Iraq's Shiite-led government held sway in Balad city, forcing out Sunni families and leaving the bodies of slain Sunni men to rot in the streets, according to police, residents and hospital officials.
The Iraqi government deployed still more reinforcements to try to calm the embattled towns and hold open the main roads, Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul Kareem al-Kinani said in the capital. But local police officers accused Shiite-dominated government police forces of working alongside Shiite militias in executing Sunnis and appealed for more help.
The escalating violence in the Tigris River towns in many ways serves as a microcosm of the daily violence roiling Iraq. Sectarian attacks have increased more than tenfold since the start of the year and now claim more than 100 victims a day, according to the Iraqi government.
The violence in Balad was unusual because of the sustained deployment of the militias on the streets, and the killing seemed particularly vicious. Balad was "under siege from all sides," police 1st Lt. Bassim Hamdi said by telephone from the city. "We demand that leaders from both sides intervene to stop the bloodshed. Because if this goes on, it will explode sectarian violence all over Iraq."
As the carnage mounted, President Bush called Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to reassure the Iraqi leader of his support and assure him he was under no time pressure from the United States to curb sectarian violence.
Bush told Maliki he had no plans to pull out U.S. troops and advised him to ignore rumors that Washington intended to impose a two-month deadline for Iraq to rein in the violence, White House spokesman Tony Snow said in Washington.
Bush assured the Iraqi leader, " 'Don't worry, you still have our full support,' " Snow said.
American officials and Iraqis have expressed increasing frustration with inaction by Maliki, who this week indefinitely postponed measures both to disband militias and convene a reconciliation conference meant to close the widening rift between Iraq's Shiite majority and Sunni minority.
Maliki has bridled at growing U.S. pressure to act against the illegal private armies, which include armed wings of the two biggest parties in his governing alliance of Shiite religious parties. The prime minister issued a statement late Monday stressing that government forces have already confronted militias in some provinces. His administration "is determined to confront the armed groups with all political and military means," he said.
Although Baghdad has been the nexus of the Shiite-Sunni struggle for months, sectarian killing exploded in river towns about 50 miles to the north of the capital Friday after suspected Sunni insurgents kidnapped and beheaded 17 Shiite laborers from date palm groves in the predominantly Sunni hamlet of Duluiyah, across the river from Balad.
Shiite elders of Balad said they called in the Baghdad militias of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr -- whose bloc is the largest in Iraq's Shiite-led government -- to take revenge.
Most of the victims since then have been Sunni men in Duluiyah and neighboring Sunni towns. Hasanein al-Badawi, a physician at Balad's hospital, said almost all had been shot and some had been tortured with electric drills.
The total number of victims received by Balad's hospital morgue held steady at 80 on Monday, Badawi said. Members of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia were blocking Sunni families from picking up more of their dead from the streets, he said.
The American military had recorded 57 killings in Balad, Lt. Col. Christopher C. Garver, a military spokesman, said in Baghdad.
On Monday, Sunni families fleeing Balad described Shiite militias going door-to-door, giving people two hours to clear out.
A police officer in Duluiyah, Capt. Qaid al-Azawi, accused American forces of standing by in Balad while militiamen in police cars and police uniforms slaughtered Sunnis. Americans did act, however, in Duluiyah, arresting three local police officers whom they suspected of fighting with insurgents against the militias, Azawi said.
Garver, the spokesman in Baghdad, said he had no information on these specific reports. "We're providing assistance where we see criminal behavior, such as violence and killing," he said.
Police officials said Balad had calmed by nightfall with the deployment of large numbers of Iraqi army troops, who are seen as more neutral than forces of the Shiite-dominated police.
Meanwhile, clashes between Iraqi and foreign members of al-Qaeda in Iraq signaled a possible split in the foreign-led Sunni insurgent group over its leaders' declaration Sunday of a separate, Sunni-led Islamic emirate in nine provinces of Iraq.
The hospital in Ramadi, a western city badly battered by years of fighting between American forces and Sunni insurgents, by late Monday had received the bodies of 13 insurgents killed in the internal clashes, including a top local leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, according to Saad Naji, a physician.
A mid-ranking Iraqi official of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Ma'an al-Ani, said scores of Iraqi members of Iraq's most feared Sunni insurgent group had broken away, spurred by unhappiness at Sunday's declaration. Creation of a separate Sunni state would only "tear the country apart . . . and divert from the main goal, which is getting Americans out," Ani said.
In other violence Monday, 11 people were killed when assailants used car bombs to attack the funeral of a Shiite policeman in Baghdad, the Interior Ministry said.
Two American soldiers were killed in fighting north of Baghdad, the U.S. military said, bringing to 12 the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq since Friday, an unusually high toll. Attacks have killed more than 50 American troops in October, putting the month on track to be one of the bloodiest of the war for U.S. forces.
Execution-style shootings claim the great majority of victims in Baghdad, where scores of bodies are dumped each day. Monday's victims included the brother of the chief prosecutor in Saddam Hussein's genocide trial, who was shot to death in front of his wife at his home.
Aldin reported from Tikrit. Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi and Naseer Nouri in Baghdad, Saad Sarhan in Najaf and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.