Rising up against insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, Iraqi Sunni Muslims in Ramadi fought with grenade launchers and automatic weapons Saturday to defend their Shiite neighbors against a bid to drive them from the western city, Sunni leaders and Shiite residents said. The fighting came as the U.S. military announced the deaths of six American soldiers.
Dozens of Sunni members of the Dulaimi tribe established cordons around Shiite homes, and Sunni men battled followers of Zarqawi, a Jordanian, for an hour Saturday morning. The clashes killed five of Zarqawi's guerrillas and two tribal fighters, residents and hospital workers said. Zarqawi loyalists pulled out of two contested neighborhoods in pickup trucks stripped of license plates, witnesses said.
The leaders of four of Iraq's Sunni tribes had rallied their fighters in response to warnings posted in mosques by followers of Zarqawi. The postings ordered Ramadi's roughly 3,000 Shiites to leave the city of more than 200,000 in the area called the Sunni Triangle. The order to leave within 48 hours came in retaliation for alleged expulsions by Shiite militias of Sunnis living in predominantly Shiite southern Iraq.
"We have had enough of his nonsense," said Sheik Ahmad Khanjar, leader of the Albu Ali clan, referring to Zarqawi. "We don't accept that a non-Iraqi should try to enforce his control over Iraqis, regardless of their sect -- whether Sunnis, Shiites, Arabs or Kurds.''
Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders and armed followers of Zarqawi have clashed before in the far west, and Sunnis and Shiites in western cities have sympathized with one another over what they have said are attempts by foreign fighters to spark open sectarian conflict. But Saturday's clash in Ramadi was one of the first times Sunni Arabs have been known to take up arms against insurgents specifically in defense of Shiites.
The dramatic show of unity in the western city came as Sunni and Shiite Arabs and ethnic Kurds in Baghdad continued negotiations over the country's constitution. They were trying to meet a Monday deadline but failing to resolve some key differences.
President Jalal Talabani, who has hosted days of closed-door talks among Iraq's factional and political leaders, said he remained hopeful the deadline could be met. "There will be no postponing of any issue," Talabani told reporters. "God willing, tomorrow the constitution will be ready."
Disputes over federalism -- particularly whether Shiites should be allowed to have a separate federal state in the south equivalent to the one the Kurds have established in the north -- remain the biggest obstacle. Sunni Arabs rigidly oppose the division, expressing fears that it would split Iraq and leave their minority stranded in the resource-poor center and west.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad sat with faction leaders throughout the day, pushing for completion by Monday, said a Sunni Arab constitutional delegate, Salih Mutlak.
The fighting in Ramadi suggested a potentially serious threat to Zarqawi's group, al Qaeda in Iraq, which is made up of Sunni extremists from inside and outside Iraq. The insurgency has increasingly targeted Shiite civilians along with U.S. and Iraqi forces, particularly with grisly suicide bombings that have killed scores of Shiites at a time. Zarqawi's followers see Shiites as rivals for power and as apostates within the broader Islamic faith.
Washington and the U.S.-backed Iraqi transitional government have worked to split mainstream Iraqi Sunnis from the radical foreign fighters, hoping to draw them away from the insurgency and into the political process that many rejected after the toppling of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated government in 2003.
At midday Saturday, men with grenade launchers and AK-47s still could be seen in Ramadi's two contested neighborhoods, Sejarriyah and Tameem.
Masked men distributed leaflets that declared the city's tribes would fight "Zarqawi's attempt to turn Ramadi into a second Fallujah," referring to the nearby city that U.S. forces wrested from insurgent control in November. Statements posted on walls declared in the name of the Iraqi-led Mohammed's Army group that "Zarqawi has lost his direction" and strayed "from the line of true resistance against the occupation."
A grateful Shiite resident of Ramadi said he was not surprised at the threats by Zarqawi's followers or the defiance of them. "So many ties of friendship, marriage and compassion" bind Shiites and Sunnis in Ramadi, said Ali Hussein Lifta, a 50-year-old air-conditioning repairman and a resident of Tameem.
"We have become in fact part of the population here, and this we are going to convey to the rest of Iraq and to those who want to instill division between Sunnis and Shiites," Lifta said. "We are happy to know that the ties with the Sunnis have become so strong that the Zarqawis and their terrorism cannot affect them.''
Separately Saturday, Zarqawi's movement posted statements in Ramadi pledging to kill Sunni clerics in the west for urging Sunnis to take part in the country's next elections.
"We, al Qaeda in Iraq, announce that we will apply the religious punishment for apostasy upon whoever calls for creation of the constitution. You, preacher at the podium of prophecy, be a speaker of truth, doer of good and rallier for the rule of sharia," or Islamic law, the statement said.
Similar threats led the majority of Iraq's Sunni voters to boycott elections in January, weakening their position when the country's factions began crafting a constitution.
If the draft constitution is finished by Monday as scheduled, and Iraqis agree in an Oct. 15 vote to adopt it, Iraq will hold elections Dec. 15 for its first full-term government since Hussein was toppled.
Missing the deadline would risk greatly aggravating political instability and violence that have claimed thousands of Iraqi and American lives since the elections.
Existing law requires the current government to dissolve if the deadline is not met, opening the way for the election of a new government, which would take another try at writing a constitution.
Around the country on Saturday, bombings and ambushes killed at least 12 Iraqis and wounded more than a dozen, according to the Associated Press and the Reuters news agency.
Late Saturday, the military announced the deaths of five U.S. soldiers, three of whom were killed in a roadside bomb attack while on patrol Friday night in the northern town of Tuz. One soldier died when a roadside bomb detonated in Baghdad Saturday. Another was found dead from a gunshot wound in the Iraqi capital, according to an Army statement. On Sunday, one soldier was killed and three wounded by a roadside bombing in the western town of Ruteah.
Also in Baghdad, a U.S. Bradley Fighting Vehicle was left burning in the Sadr City district, Reuters reported. The U.S. military said the armored personnel carrier was set on fire by a roadside bomb, but there were no reports of American casualties. Local police said an Iraqi civilian was killed in the explosion.
Special correspondents Omar Fekeiki and Naseer Nouri contributed to this report.