Sunni Insurgents Ascendant in Iraq's Caldron of Violence

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 3, 2007

BAGHDAD, March 2 -- In the photos, the 18 men were blindfolded, their hands tied behind their backs. They appeared Friday on the Web site of a Sunni insurgent group that said it had kidnapped the men to avenge the alleged rape of a Sunni woman by members of Iraq's Shiite-dominated police force.

The Islamic State of Iraq said on its site that it had demanded Thursday that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hand over the accused policemen and free all female prisoners within 24 hours.

On Friday, officials found the bodies of 14 policemen in Diyala province east of Baghdad. All had been shot in the head.

"The government did not give any importance to their blood," the Islamic State of Iraq said. A government official said he doubted the dead were the men in the photos.

More than two weeks into a new Baghdad security plan, Sunni insurgents are asserting responsibility for an increasing number of violent attacks against U.S. and Iraqi security forces and civilian targets, while Shiite militias are lowering their profile.

In recent months, al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni groups have begun to use more sophisticated tactics, downing U.S. helicopters and staging large attacks that have claimed the lives of hundreds of Iraqi civilians.

Meanwhile, the Mahdi Army, the largest and most violent Shiite militia, headed by anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, has faded from neighborhoods it once visibly controlled. Sadr, whose forces have fiercely battled U.S. troops, appears to be cooperating with the security plan, although a statement attributed to him and released Sunday warned that the plan "will not be good if it is controlled and ruled by our enemies, the occupiers."

Mahdi Army militiamen "have certainly reduced their activities in the past couple of weeks," said Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a U.S. military spokesman. "What is their long-term intention? It is absolutely too early to tell."

The total number of attacks has fallen since mid-February, U.S. and Iraqi officials say. But the resurgence of Sunni militants may represent a change in the dynamics of violence in the capital.

After the February 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra and the killing of al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June, Shiite militias were blamed for many of the atrocities. U.S. officials viewed them as a bigger threat than Sunni insurgents. Dismantling the power of the Shiite militias became a primary goal of the current security plan.

Sunni insurgents say they have downed at least six U.S. helicopters since Jan. 20. Since the Feb. 14 launch of the security plan, the largest attacks, purportedly by al-Qaeda in Iraq or other Sunni insurgents, have targeted Shiite-controlled areas or U.S. troops.

They include two car bombings that killed at least 60 people in a crowded market in the mostly Shiite area of New Baghdad on Feb. 18. The next day, insurgents staged a brazen assault on an American military outpost, killing three U.S. soldiers and injuring 29 in the town of Tarmiyah, 19 miles north of Baghdad.

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