BAGHDAD, Iraq — U.S. forces were back patrolling the streets of the predominantly Shiite town of Balad on Tuesday after a shocking five days of sectarian violence in which nearly 100 died. Iraq's 4th Army, rated one of the nation's best trained, had been unable to stem sectarian violence since taking full control of Salahuddin province a month ago.
Forty mortar rounds had poured into the city overnight and into the morning, killing at least four more people and bringing the death toll in the Sunni-Shiite warfare to at least 95.
Minority Sunnis, who absorbed most of the brutality in Balad, were fleeing across the Tigris River in small boats, Balad police commander Brig. Nebil al-Beldawi said. On the outskirts of the city two fuel trucks were attacked and burned.
The commander said gunmen wearing black uniforms, trademark clothing of Shiite militiamen, had clashed with residents of Duluiyah, the predominantly Sunni Muslim city on the east bank of the Tigris, opposite Balad. Al-Beldawi said the militants were keeping food and fuel trucks from entering Duluiyah.
The conflict between Shiites and Sunnis in the Balad area stands out as a marker of the first known extended battle in a confined region between members of the two Muslim sects. It would also portend heavy fighting for the region should the country move toward dividing into three federal states — one each controlled by Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.
Regions such as Baghdad and areas immediately to the north, including Balad, are deeply mixed between Shiites and Sunnis. Both groups would be expected to fight hard to maintain control of their territory, especially the capital. Last week, over the objection of nearly all Sunnis and some Shiites, the Shiite-dominated parliament voted to allow moves toward establishing federal states after an 18-month waiting period.
Sects fighting over oil wealth
Dividing the country would close Sunnis off from oil wealth, which would end up with the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south, unless a resource sharing mechanism was put in place and abided by. Sunni lands are largely desert or agricultural belts along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.
Across Iraq on Tuesday 35 other people were killed in violent attacks and 16 more corpses were found in the capital, hands and legs bound and showing signs of torture, police reported.
According to an Associated Press count, October is on track to be the deadliest month for Iraqis since AP began tracking deaths in April 2005. So far, 766 Iraqis have been killed in war- related violence in October, on average 45 killed every day.Video: Pressure mounts
The average per day killed since April 2005 is 27.39. The AP count includes civilians, government officials, and police and security forces, and is considered a minimum based on AP reporting. The actual number is likely higher, as many killings go unreported or uncounted.
Iraqi officials, particularly Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, are under intense pressure to disband Shiite militias — believed responsible for most of the killings in Balad and heavy involvement in violence elsewhere.
The armed fighters, allied to Shiite political groups, are widely believed to have infiltrated the Shiite-dominated police and security forces or to be allowed freedom to attack Sunni Muslims without fear of arrest or interference.
3,000 government employees dismissed
In apparent response to that pressure, the Interior Ministry, which runs Iraqi police, removed two officers in charge of commando units as part of a restructuring plan announced last week.
Brig. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, the ministry's spokesman, said the two officers — Maj. Gen. Rashid Filah and Maj. Gen. Mahdi Sabbih — were transferred from their posts but denied their removal was a demotion or had anything to do alleged militia activity.
"Because of their sacrifices and their experience, both of these leaders were named to high-ranking posts," Khalaf said, flanked by Filah and Sabbih.
The ministry said last week it had fired 3,000 employees accused of corruption or rights abuses and that it intended to change top commanders as part of a restructuring plan designed to bolster its ability to combat violence. It said 600 of the 3,000 dismissed personnel will face prosecution.
U.S. forces to provide backup
The U.S. military symbolically handed control of parts of Salahuddin province to the 3rd Battalion, 1st Brigade, 4th Iraqi Army Division on April 15. That region included Balad and Duluiyah, as well as surrounding villages. Full control of the province was officially handed to the 4th Army on Sept. 18.
Under these shifts of control, U.S. forces do not necessarily withdraw, but are withdrawn to local bases to standby as backup. Since the latest security crackdown in Baghdad, however, U.S. forces from many regions have shifted to the capital, causing a drawdown of American troop strength in some regions of the country.
On Sept. 7, the U.S. military handed over control of Iraq's armed forces command to the al-Maliki government. Previously, the U.S.-led Multinational Forces in Iraq, commanded by Gen. George Casey, gave orders to the Iraqi armed forces through a joint American-Iraqi headquarters and chain of command. Senior U.S. and coalition officers controlled larger units, which were in turn commanded by Iraq officers.
Now, the chain of command flows directly from al-Maliki in his role as Iraqi commander in chief, through his defense ministry to an Iraqi military headquarters. From there, the orders flow to Iraqi units on the ground.
U.S. forces up safety efforts
As the violence in the Balad region was reaching full pitch on Saturday, the AP asked the U.S. military in Baghdad if American forces were involved in trying to quell the killing.
"As of this time, the Coalition (the U.S.-led force in Iraq) has not been asked to provide any assistance," the military said in a return e-mail. A request for information on Sunday went unanswered.
In response to the same question on Monday, the military responded:
"Coalition Force units are partnering with Iraqi police and Iraqi army units involved in operations around Balad. We are also providing quick reaction assets to the Iraqi Police and Army. The IA and IP are in the lead with the operations around Balad."
On Tuesday morning, the military said:
"Coalition forces are partnering with and assisting the Iraqi police and army by providing quick reaction assets. The Iraqi police and army are currently manning numerous checkpoints around Balad and the Mayor of Balad issued a 47 hour curfew in the city district on Oct. 14."
By late Tuesday the military had not responded to questions about when the U.S. military first was asked to intervene and how many American forces were involved.
© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.