U.S. military commanders are talking with Iraqi militants about cease-fires and other arrangements to try to stop the violence, the No. 2 American commander said Thursday.
Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno said he has authorized commanders to reach out to militants, tribes, religious leaders and others in the country that has been gripped by violence from a range of fronts including insurgents, sectarian rivals and common criminals.
"We are talking about cease-fires, and maybe signing some things that say they won't conduct operations against the government of Iraq or against coalition forces.," Odierno told Pentagon reporters in a video conference from Baghdad.
"It's just the beginning, so we have a lot of work to do on this," he said. "But we have restructured ourselves to organize to work this issue."
Odierno said the effort goes hand in hand with reconciliation efforts by the Iraqi government.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other leaders are under increasing pressure from Washington to do more to achieve reconciliation among factions because, officials argue, no amount of military force can bring peace to the country without political peace.
Al-Maliki announced a national reconciliation proposal nearly a year ago that has made limited progress. It offered some amnesty to members of the Sunni-led insurgency and a change in a law that had removed senior members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from their jobs.
At least 25 killed in Fallujah blast
A suicide bomber hit a police recruiting center in Fallujah on Thursday, killing at least 25 people and wounding 50, police said. U.S. forces backed by helicopter gunships clashed with suspected al-Qaida gunmen in western Baghdad in an engagement that lasted several hours.
At least 10 policemen were among the dead in the Fallujah attack, which occurred about 11 a.m., according to a police official in the city who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
Fallujah, in restive Anbar province, is 40 miles west of Baghdad.
Police said the bomber detonated his explosives vest at the third of four checkpoints as he stood among recruits who were lining up to apply for jobs on the force. The center had only been opened on Saturday in a primary school in eastern Fallujah.
The U.S. military and Iraqi army and police were running the center along with members of Anbar Salvation Council, a loose grouping of Sunni tribes that have banded together to fight al-Qaida.
Police stations and recruiting posts have been a favorite target of Sunni insurgents and al-Qaida through the course of the Iraq war.
The fighting in western Baghdad’s Amariyah neighborhood exploded after residents there called for U.S. help.
Members of al-Qaida, who consider the district part of their so-called Islamic State of Iraq, were preventing students from attending final examinations, shooting randomly and forcing residents to stay in their homes, according to an official of the district council. He spoke on condition of anonymity fearing retribution from al-Qaida.
Clashes continued into Thursday afternoon, and the council official said the al-Qaida leader in the region, known as Haji Hameed, was killed and 45 other fighters detained.
Mourners blame deaths on U.S. strike
American forces, meanwhile, pressed on Thursday with the search for five kidnapped Britons, and a procession of mourners, some of them women wailing and beating their chests, marched through Sadr City behind a small bus carrying the coffins of two people who police said were killed in a U.S. helicopter strike before dawn.
The U.S. military did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the alleged attack in the second day of a search for the Britons who were abducted from a Finance Ministry data processing building in eastern Baghdad on Tuesday.
A U.S. military statement, however, said U.S. and Iraqi forces had arrested two “members of the secret cell terrorist network” on Thursday in Sadr City. There was no mention of fatalities.
Associated Press Television news video tape from Sadr City showed the coffins of the victims atop a small bus with men and women walking behind, crying. A young boy could be seen sitting next to the coffins on the bus.
A police officer in Sadr City, who refused to allow use of his name because he feared retribution, said the helicopter hit a house and car at 4:30 a.m., killing two elderly people sleeping on the roof of their home, a common practice in the extreme heat of Iraq through late spring and summer. The officer said a 13-year-old boy was injured.
Also in Sadr City raids, which the U.S. has been conducting with a select unit of Iraqi army forces, Shiite cleric Abdul-Zahra al-Suwaidi claimed his home was raided and ransacked by American forces at 3 a.m. Thursday.
Al-Suwaidi, who runs the Sadr City political office of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said he was sleeping elsewhere at the time of the raid, expecting that he would be targeted. He said his home was badly damaged and a small amount of money was taken.
The U.S. military also did not immediately comment on al-Suwaidi claim.
Dozens of U.S. Humvees and Bradley fighting vehicles had taken up positions around Sadr City at nightfall Wednesday.
The Britons were snatched from a Finance Ministry facility in a mock police raid that Iraqi officials said was carried out by the Mahdi Army Shiite militia.
A secret incident report about the abductions — written by Najwa Fatih-Allah, director general of the Finance Ministry’s data processing center, where the Britons were seized — quotes Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, as saying the Mahdi Army “will be profoundly sorry” if it carried out the assault.
Much of the Mahdi Army militia is said to be loyal to al-Sadr, who resurfaced last week after nearly four months in hiding, apparently in Iran, and demanded U.S. troops leave Iraq.
Al-Sadr’s return appeared to be partly an effort to regain control over his militia, which had begun fragmenting. It was unclear whether the 33-year-old cleric would have been aware of or condoned the kidnapping of the five British citizens — four bodyguards and an employee of a management consulting firm.
When al-Sadr went underground at the start of the U.S.-led security crackdown on Baghdad 15 weeks ago, he ordered his militia off the streets to prevent conflict with American forces. Nevertheless, his return likely complicates U.S. efforts to crack down on violence and broker political compromise in the country.
Key new details of the attack
Fatih-Allah’s report to Finance Minister Bayan Jabr revealed key new details about the attack. Portions of the report were read to The Associated Press on the telephone by a government official who did so on condition of anonymity because the document was not for public distribution.
The report said four men in civilian clothing appeared at the center about 10:45 a.m. Tuesday — 15 minutes before the kidnapping. The account said the men claimed they were from the government anti-fraud commission and looked through each room in the center, then quickly left the building.
At about 11 a.m. dozens of men in army and police uniforms, the report said, burst into the building, disarmed guards and went directly into the room where the five Britons were working. The five were seized and rushed out of the building to 19 waiting four-wheel-drive vehicles. The convoy then drove away to the east.
The five kidnapped Britons included four bodyguards working for the Montreal-based security firm GardaWorld and one employee of BearingPoint, a U.S.-based management consulting firm.