New fighting flared north of Baghdad on Saturday, as a joint U.S.-Iraqi force scoured the countryside elsewhere in the Sunni Muslim heartland in the third day of a major counter-insurgency operation.
Iraq’s government claimed the operation captured suspects in the killing of a prominent journalist.
The U.S. military, in a delayed report, said two 101st Airborne Division soldiers were killed by indirect fire — usually meaning mortars — still farther north, at the sprawling Speicher U.S. base. The command previously reported a third 101st Airborne soldier was shot and killed, also on Thursday, at Samarra, a focus of the U.S.-Iraqi sweeps that began that day.
Call for U.S. to free some detainees
Iraq’s national security adviser, meanwhile, urged the Americans to loosen their security net around Samarra, 60 miles up the Tigris River from Baghdad, and complained that too many “innocent” young men were being rounded up in those sweeps.
“I call for their quick release,” Lt. Gen. Wafiq al-Samaraei told the Arab television network al-Arabiya.
Some Sunni Iraqi leaders, like al-Samaraei, who refers to some anti-U.S. guerrillas as a “patriotic resistance,” expressed unease about the three-day-old Operation Swarmer, mounted as representatives of the Sunni, Shiite Muslim and Kurdish blocs in the new Parliament engage in sensitive negotiations over forming a new government.
Those talks are taking place against the background of Sunni-Shiite reprisal killings and terrorism.
Bomb targets Shiite pilgrims
In the latest spate of bloodshed, an exploding roadside bomb in southern Baghdad on Saturday killed one Shiite pilgrim and wounded five others as they headed toward Karbala, 60 miles south of here, for a Shiite holiday on Monday, police Lt. Thair Mahmoud reported.
Meanwhile in Baghdad’s Sadr City, a Shiite slum, the bodies of six men, some handcuffed, some blindfolded, were found late Friday and early Saturday, police reported.
The Saturday morning firefight flared when Iraqi counter-insurgency troops staged a predawn raid in an area near Baqouba, 30 miles north of Baghdad, touching off a clash in which two gunmen were killed, one was wounded, and 18 were arrested, including a Jordanian, said the army’s Brig. Saman al-Talabani.
Along with ammunition and arms, the soldiers seized computer discs of fatwas — edicts — issued by Islamic clerics to kill Iraqi police and soldiers, Talabani said.
Alleged killers of journalist captured
In Operation Swarmer, described as the biggest helicopter-borne operation in three years when it began on Thursday, the joint U.S.-Iraqi force captured six people, not further identified, allegedly responsible for the killing last month of al-Arabiya television journalist Atwar Bahjat, her cameraman and a technician, the Iraqi government reported.
About 80 suspected insurgents overall had been detained as of Saturday, and 17 were released after questioning, said Lt. Col. Edward S. Loomis, a 101st Airborne Division spokesman. He said the search teams turned up 15 weapons caches, containing 352 mortar rounds, 84 rocket-propelled grenades and a “significant amount” of material for making improvised roadside bombs, among other items.
In the TV interview, national security adviser al-Samaraei urged that the U.S.-Iraqi operation ease restrictions on traffic across Samarra’s vital Tigris River bridge, and cease “disarming the people of Samarra of their own authorized weapons” — necessary, he said, to confront the “Zarqawi terrorists.”
Many Sunni spokesmen differentiate between what they see as an Iraqi nationalist resistance against the U.S. occupation, and Islamic fundamentalist terrorists in Iraq, many foreign, led by people like the Jordanian al-Qaida follower Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
“Many young people were detained, some of them innocent, and I call for their quick release,” al-Samaraie said. But he also called on Samarra’s youths “to lay down their arms and join the political process.”
Loomis said the three Americans’ deaths were not directly related to Operation Swarmer. The soldier killed in Samarra was shot while manning an observation post in the riverside town, the command said.
None of the dead was identified, pending notification of next-of-kin. At least 2,314 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003.