By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 24, 2007
BAGHDAD, Aug. 23 -- An insurgent attack Thursday on a Sunni sheik who has cooperated with U.S. forces escalated into an extended street battle involving the sheik's militiamen, local villagers and Iraqi forces, according to police and the U.S. military. Thirty-two people were killed and 15 kidnapped, police said.
Residents of a village near Baqubah, 35 miles north of Baghdad, apparently heard the initial commotion and took up their weapons to fight the attackers, who were members of the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, said Lt. Col. Michael Donnelly, a spokesman for the U.S. military units north of Baghdad.
"The villagers came together and started fighting off al-Qaeda in Iraq," Donnelly said. "It's another sign of people not putting up with" the group's violence. Police gave a similar account of the villagers' reaction.
The sheik was killed and his mosque was destroyed, Donnelly said. The dead also included village residents, insurgents and Iraqi security personnel, police said, while the 15 people kidnapped by the insurgents appeared to be women and children.
The attack was the latest in a string targeting Sunni leaders who have struck alliances with U.S. troops to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq. In recent months, U.S. commanders have granted significant powers to scores of Sunni militias -- some of which are believed to have previously battled U.S. troops -- as part of a new strategy against the insurgent group.
The sheik who was killed Thursday was reported to have been a local leader of the 1920 Revolution Brigades, a Sunni militia that was founded as part of an effort to force a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq but lately has come to consider al-Qaeda in Iraq as its real enemy. Since June, U.S. commanders have announced alliances with the brigades in many parts of the country.
The attack underscores a key difficulty for U.S. forces in maintaining the support of Sunni militias, which generally oppose Iraq's Shiite-led government and whose long-term goals remain unclear. As more Sunni leaders are attacked, American commanders are finding it increasingly difficult to persuade others to join the effort.
Donnelly said that no American troops were in the area when the attack began in the early morning, but that commanders sent a unit to stabilize the situation later in the day.
The military also announced Thursday that it had completed an offensive in Diyala province. Twenty-six al-Qaeda in Iraq members were killed and 50 villages were cleared of insurgents, the military reported.
Also, the military said nine Iraqi police officers had been arrested for allegedly planting a roadside bomb near a police checkpoint in southern Baghdad. The national police force is believed to be widely infiltrated by Shiite insurgents, and many Sunnis do not trust anyone wearing a police uniform.
Special correspondent Saad al-Izzi contributed to this report.