By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 1, 2007
BAGHDAD, May 31 -- Sunni residents of a west Baghdad neighborhood used assault rifles and a roadside bomb to battle the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq this week, leaving at least 28 people dead and six injured, residents said Thursday.
The mayor of the Amiriyah neighborhood, Mohammed Abdul Khaliq, said in a telephone interview that residents were rising up to try to expel al-Qaeda in Iraq, which has alienated other Sunnis with its indiscriminate violence and attacks on members of its own sect.
"I think this is going to be the end of the al-Qaeda presence here," Abdul Khaliq said of the fighting Wednesday and Thursday, which began over accusations that al-Qaeda in Iraq had executed Sunnis without reason.
The Baghdad battle is evidence of a deepening split between some Sunni insurgent groups and al-Qaeda in Iraq, which claims allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Although similar rebellions occurred in Diyala province earlier this year, the fighting this week appears to be the first time the conflict has reached the streets of Baghdad.
Abdul Khaliq said he hoped U.S. forces would stay out of the fight. "But if the Americans interfere, it will blow up, because they are the enemy of us both, and we will unite against them and stop fighting each other," he said.
In the western province of Anbar, which is predominantly Sunni, tribal leaders have formed an umbrella group, the Anbar Salvation Council, to join with U.S. and Iraqi troops in a common fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq, which used to dominate the province. Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the No. 2 commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said at a news briefing Thursday that 12,000 Anbar residents have joined the Iraqi security forces in the first five months of this year, compared with 1,000 in all of last year.
Tribal leaders say they are signing up because they oppose al-Qaeda in Iraq's extremist ideologies and its attacks on local residents, but critics of the council say the U.S. effort in Anbar amounts to backing one private army against another.
In an attack clearly meant to intimidate the tribes, a suicide bomber wearing an explosives vest blew himself up Thursday among 150 recruits waiting to enter a police compound in the Anbar city of Fallujah, killing 25 people and wounding at least 20, said Ayman Hussein Zaidan, an official at Fallujah General Hospital.
In a second suicide attack Thursday in Anbar, six people were killed, including three policemen, when a car bomb exploded at a telephone exchange in Ramadi, the provincial capital about 60 miles west of Baghdad, said Col. Tariq al-Dulaimi, a local police chief. He said seven police officers and two bystanders were wounded in the blast.
The Amiriyah neighborhood, located near Baghdad International Airport in the western part of the capital, has been hit hard by rampant violence, a lack of services and the expulsion of Shiite families. It is considered a virtual no man's land.
Problems arose on Tuesday when the Islamic Army, a powerful Sunni insurgent group, posted a statement at a local mosque criticizing al-Qaeda in Iraq for killing dozens of other Sunnis in Fallujah and Baghdad "on suspicion only," without sufficient evidence that they had done something wrong, according to a copy sent to The Washington Post. The message warned al-Qaeda in Iraq to stop the practice, which it said could lead to clashes between them.
Late Wednesday afternoon, according to residents reached by phone who would not be quoted by name for security reasons, an armed group scrawled graffiti on a school wall reading: "Down with al-Qaeda, long live the honest resistance." When al-Qaeda in Iraq members came to wipe away the writing, a roadside bomb exploded nearby, killing three of them, residents said.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq then attacked a mosque associated with the Islamic Army, killing the group's leader, Razi al-Zobai, and four other fighters, complaining in a statement that the Islamic Army had become involved in the political process in Iraq, residents said. In retaliation, the Islamic Army attacked a mosque associated with al-Qaeda in Iraq, killing one of the group's leaders, known as Sheik Hamid, and four other members, including Waleed Saber Tikriti, a doctor who treated al-Qaeda in Iraq's wounded, residents said.
On Thursday, al-Qaeda in Iraq reinforcements arrived from other Baghdad neighborhoods, residents said, and furious fighting erupted between the groups, lasting about four hours. Nine fighters from al-Qaeda in Iraq and six from the Islamic Army were killed, according to Abu Ahmed al-Baghdadi, an Islamic Army leader reached by telephone. He said six civilians were injured by a mortar round fired by al-Qaeda in Iraq "criminals."
Baghdadi said about 40 members of al-Qaeda in Iraq fought a force of 30 fighters from the Islamic Army and the 1920 Revolution Brigades, another Sunni insurgent group. The latter two groups were aided by local residents who oppose al-Qaeda in Iraq, he said.
Despite being outnumbered, the Sunni insurgent leaders asserted, they had a significant advantage over al-Qaeda in Iraq because its members were staying in abandoned Shiite houses that were well known, while the Sunni insurgents were blended among the population.
Late Thursday, a senior Iraqi army official in Baghdad, Brig. Gen. Qasim Atta, said on state-run al-Iraqiya television that calm had returned to the neighborhood.
The U.S. military, meanwhile, announced that five American soldiers were killed in three roadside bombings in the capital on Monday and Wednesday, and one soldier died Tuesday from a "non-battle" cause.
May is now the third-deadliest month of the war for U.S. forces in Iraq, with 123 deaths, or an average of four U.S. fatalities per day. The worst month for fatalities was November 2004, when 137 troops died.
The U.S. military reported that eight U.S. soldiers and three Iraqi civilians, including a child, were injured in the Adhamiyah area of northern Baghdad on Wednesday when a suicide bomber exploded his car at a checkpoint.
An Associated Press Television News cameraman was shot and killed in Baghdad on Thursday while walking to a mosque near his home in Amiriyah on his day off, the AP reported. Saif M. Fakhry, 26, was the fifth AP employee to die violently in the Iraq war and the third killed since December.
Other Washington Post staff contributed to this report.