US, Iraqi forces round up militia suspects
Residents help to secure area, leaders say
BAGHDAD - US and Iraqi forces, backed by Polish Army helicopters, swept through Shi'ite militia strongholds south of Baghdad yesterday, rounding up dozens of militants and killing two.
The prime minister met the provincial governor, who called for reinforcements to root out "the criminals."
Iraqi police said 30 suspected fighters linked to Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army were grabbed in a predawn house-to-house search by US and Iraqi forces in two eastern neighborhoods in Diwaniyah, 80 miles south of Baghdad.
Rival Shi'ite militias are engaged in a power struggle in the oil-rich south of the country, as British forces are leaving. But US commanders have reported significant inroads against both Shi'ite militias and Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters across the fertile agriculture belt nearer to the capital. They credit local residents, emboldened against the terror tactics of both Al Qaeda and Shi'ite militants, with much of the success.
The residents have bought into a trend that started in Iraq's western Anbar Province, where Sunni tribesmen rose up against Al Qaeda and have methodically hunted them down in conjunction with US forces.
South of the capital, Shi'ite militiamen are facing the same onslaught in communities where they have terrorized co-religionists.
On Diwaniyah's east side, US-led ground forces backed by two Polish Army helicopters came under fire from machine guns and an antitank grenade launcher, the military said.
Coalition forces reported no casualties but said two militants were killed in the sweep. The statement reporting the operation said the Polish helicopters were called in after ground forces were attacked with three roadside bombs and small-arms fire.
The governor of the Qadisiyah Province, which includes Diwaniyah, met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad yesterday to ask for more security help.
Governor Hamid al-Khudhari dismissed concerns of rising tensions between Sadr's group and the governor's party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, whose militia is known as the Badr Brigade. Khudhari replaced Mohammad al-Hassani, who was assassinated by a powerful roadside bomb in August. Mahdi Army militants are suspected in the attack.
"There have been outlawed armed groups trying to take control of the province for a long time," he said at a news conference after the meeting. "They are only criminals and we do not believe that there is political party that backs them."
Sadr and Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim signed a truce earlier this month.
Khudhari appeared at pains to give the impression that the cease-fire was holding, and that Shi'ite fighters involved in the turmoil had broken with Sadr.
"We do have problems in the local security forces that make it difficult to ensure security and we asked the prime minister to fill the gaps in this regard," he said without elaborating.
Police also clashed with gunmen in the Shi'ite holy city of Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, during a raid in which they detained a Sadrist leader, local authorities said without identifying the suspect.
Late yesterday, a mortar shell crashed near the Shi'ite shrine to Imam Al-Abbas in the city center, killing one person and wounding two.
To the north of Diwaniyah, police broke into the house of a leading Al Qaeda member in a village near Hillah. They captured Raed al-Alwani, who was wanted in the slayings of more than 100 Iraqis, according to a police officer in the region.
In all, at least 26 people were reported killed or found dead in attacks nationwide.
The US military also announced that a US soldier was killed and eight others wounded in a roadside bombing in eastern Baghdad on Thursday.
Near Baghdad, a roadside bomb hit a minibus of Shi'ite civilians traveling to visit relatives south of the capital. Three passengers died and nine were wounded, police said.
The US military said it killed one Al Qaeda leader and detained three other members of the group yesterday morning during raids in the dangerous Dora neighborhood of south Baghdad.
It also announced capturing what it termed four high-ranking militia leaders during Oct. 12-14 operations in near Iskandariyah, 30 miles from the capital. Use of the word militia indicated the men were rogue members of the Mahdi Army.
In the far north of Iraq, where Turkey is threatening to invade the autonomous Kurdish region to attack guerrilla camps of the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party, rebel leader Murat Karayilan threatened to strike back by blowing up an oil pipeline running into Turkey.
"When Turkey starts a military operation against our bases, we will defend ourselves by targeting economic sites and one of our options is to hit the oil pipeline going from Kurdistan to Turkey," Karayilan said.
An estimated 15,000 Kurds, meanwhile, packed the streets of the border city of Zakho in northern Iraq to protest the Turkish threat and to warn they would defend their territory.