Monday, January 28, 2008

5 US Soldiers Killed in Northern Iraq

BAGHDAD (AP) - Five American soldiers were killed Monday in a complex attack in the northern city of Mosul, described as one of al-Qaida in Iraq's last strongholds, just days after a house explosion and suicide attack killed as many as 60 people there.

Maj. Peggy Kageleiry, a U.S. military spokeswoman in northern Iraq, said the soldiers came under small arms fire and were hit by a roadside bomb in the city, which is the capital of Ninevah province.

Iraqi police in the provincial capital of Mosul reported that clashes had erupted in a middle-class Sunni neighbhorhood believed to be an insurgent stronghold.

An officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information, said three civilians were wounded and helicopters had bombarded buildings in the southeastern Sumar neighborhood, which has seen frequent attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces that have led to a series of raids.

On Sunday, Iraqi army reinforcements moved into positions near Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, ahead of a planned offensive announced by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

U.S. commanders describe Mosul as the last major urban center with a significant al-Qaida presence since the terror network has been driven from its strongholds in the capital and Anbar province.

The U.S. military has said Iraqi security forces will take the lead in Mosul - a major test of Washington's plan to, at an undetermined date, shrink the American force and leave it as backup for Iraqi security forces.

The Iraqi Red Crescent Organization, meanwhile, gave a higher death toll than Iraqi officials from Wednesday's devastating house explosion. The U.S. military said the cause of the blast has yet to be determined, although Iraqi officials were quick to blame al-Qaida.

Bolstering that claim, a suicide attacker killed a top police official and two other officers as they toured the wreckage the next day.

The relief organization said more than 60 people were killed and 280 wounded based on estimates from relatives who buried victims without officially registering them. Iraqi officials in Mosul maintain that nearly 40 were killed and more than 200 wounded.

The U.S.-led security crackdown, along with a Sunni revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq and a cease-fire order by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have been credited with a dramatic drop in attacks in the capital.

However, influential members of al-Sadr's movement said Monday they have urged the anti-U.S. Shiite cleric to follow through with threats not to extend the cease-fire when it expires next month, a move that could jeopardize the recent security gains.

The Sadrists are angry over the insistence of U.S. and Iraqi forces on continuing to hunt down so-called rogue fighters who ignored the six-month order, which was issued in August. Al-Sadr's followers claim this is a pretext to crack down on their movement.

The maverick cleric announced earlier this month that he would not renew the order unless the Iraqi government purges "criminal gangs" operating within security forces he claims are targeting his followers.

That was a reference to rival Shiite militiamen from the Badr Brigade who have infiltrated security forces participating in the ongoing crackdown against breakaway militia cells the U.S. has said were linked to Iran.

The political commission of al-Sadr's movement and some lawmakers and senior officials said they were urging him to follow through with his threat, pointing to recent raids against the movement in the southern Shiite cities of Diwaniyah, Basra and Karbala.

"We presented a historic opportunity when we froze the (Mahdi) army," Nasser al-Rubaie, leader of the Sadrists in parliament, told reporters Monday. "But the step was negatively capitalized on."

The group planned to send the message to al-Sadr's main office in the holy city of Najaf, two Sadrist legislators and a member of the political commission told The Associated Press. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears of retribution.

"We have demanded that the government purge these security organs and release our detainees," one official said. "We have not found any positive response so far from the government, so why then should we continue freezing the (Mahdi Army)?"

Al-Sadr's political commission is made up of the movement's most powerful officials whose opinion often reflects that of the reclusive cleric, although the officials stressed that he retains sole decision-making authority over the militia.

Underscoring the complaints, the military announced the arrest Monday of a man accused of gathering intelligence, using computers and forging documents as an associate of militia leaders involved in attacks on U.S.-led forces.

U.S. troops also detained 18 al-Qaida-linked militants in two days of operations ending Monday north of Baghdad.

Mahdi Army militiamen fought U.S. troops for much of 2004, and al-Sadr has tirelessly called for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.



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