An American soldier was killed in a roadside bombing north of Baghdad, the U.S. military said Friday, as April became the deadliest month for U.S. forces in Iraq this year.
Elsewhere, American troops killed a local al-Qaida in Iraq leader and two other insurgents in a raid north of Baghdad, The death toll in two days of fighting around Baqouba climbed to 58, including seven Iraqi soldiers, Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Awad said.
The U.S. soldier died about 7:15 p.m. Thursday when his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb north of Baghdad, the military said. That brought the American death toll for the month to at least 67, according to an Associated Press count.
April’s death toll is the highest monthly figure so far this year. Last month, 31 U.S. troops were killed in Iraq, the lowest monthly toll since February 2004. At least 2,397 members of the U.S. military have died since the Iraq war began in March 2003, according to the AP count.
Just outside Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, U.S. forces raided a house where Hamid al-Takhi, the local al-Qaida in Iraq leader, and the two other insurgents were hiding, the military said in a statement.
Al-Takhi, known as the “emir” of Samarra, was gunned down while fleeing the house, and the other two militants were killed while trying to defend it with grenades, the U.S. military said. After they were killed, the U.S. troops found a car parked nearby containing a grenade launcher, rockets, AK-47s, grenades and a shotgun, the U.S. military said.
Iraqi police said al-Takhi had been responsible for many insurgent attacks against coalition forces and civilians in the area.
The police initially said Iraqi commandos had carried out the raid but the U.S. later said American troops had conducted the operation using Iraqi intelligence.
Curfew set in Baqouba after fights
In Baqouba, Iraqi police were fighting insurgents in the streets Friday, and witnesses saw at least two wounded police officers being carried to police vehicles for evacuation. Iraqi soldiers also patrolled the city, which was closed to pedestrians and traffic by a curfew.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq — the country’s most feared insurgent group — appeared in a video earlier this week trying to rally Sunni Arabs to fight Iraq’s new government and denouncing Sunnis who cooperate with it as “agents” of the Americans.
Also Friday, two mortars or rockets were fired at downtown Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, where Iraq’s government meets and the U.S. Embassy is located. One landed inside the zone but failed to detonate, while the other exploded nearby on the other side of the Tigris River, the U.S. military said. No casualties were immediately reported.
On Friday, the weekly day of worship in mostly Muslim Iraq, a roadside bomb targeting an Iraqi police patrol exploded in southwestern Baghdad at 8:20 a.m., killing one policeman and wounding two, said police Capt. Jamil Hussein.
Around the same time, police found the corpses of two middle-aged Iraqi men in a mostly Sunni Arab neighborhood of western Baghdad, Hussein said. The men, handcuffed, blindfolded and bullet-ridden, appeared to be the latest victims of a wave of kidnappings and killings by Sunni and Shiite death squads that target civilians.
Unusual series of attacks
New information also emerged about an unusual series of coordinated attacks Thursday by insurgents in and around Baqouba.
Using mortar rounds, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire, the insurgents attacked five police checkpoints, a police station and an Iraqi army headquarters, Iraqi and U.S. officials said.
Clashes and raids continued through the night, officials said. In addition to the seven Iraqi soldiers, Ahmed said 49 insurgents were killed and 74 others were arrested. U.S. officials said two civilians were killed and the wounded included 10 Iraqi soldiers, four policemen and four civilians.
The violence erupted as the incoming prime minister won the backing of Iraq’s top Shiite cleric for his plan to disband militias, which the U.S. believes is the key to calming sectarian strife and halting the country’s slide toward civil war.
The endorsement of Prime Minister-designate Nouri al-Maliki’s plan came during a meeting Thursday in Najaf with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The ayatollah told al-Maliki, a Shiite tapped last weekend to form a new government, that security should be his top priority.
“Therefore, weapons must be exclusively in the hands of government forces, and these forces must be built on a proper national basis so that their loyalty is to the country alone, not to political or other sides,” a statement from al-Sistani’s office said.
Plans for the new government
Al-Maliki plans to integrate militias, many of them linked to Shiite parties, into the army and police. To ensure their loyalty to the government, he wants to appoint defense and interior ministers without connections to militias.
Former militiamen who have joined government forces, especially those run by the Shiite-led Interior Ministry, have been widely accused by Sunni Arabs of operating as death squads targeting Sunni civilians.
Attempts by previous Iraqi governments to abolish militias have failed, and their numbers have grown, in part because U.S. and Iraqi forces have been unable to guarantee public safety.
Al-Maliki has until late May to present his Cabinet to parliament, the final step in building a national unity government. The United States believes a government of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds will help calm sectarian passions and tamp down the Sunni-led insurgency so the 130,000 American troops can begin to go home.
In other developments Friday, Iraqi forces perched on rooftops in Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, exchanged sporadic fire with insurgents in a residential district where guerillas have been active. One Iraqi soldier was killed, the troops said.
Former leader Saddam Hussein, who is being tried in Iraq on charges of crimes against humanity, turned 69. U.S. officials declined to say what Saddam had done on his third consecutive birthday in captivity in Iraq.