An al-Qaida-linked suicide bomber struck a safehouse occupied by an insurgent group that has turned against the terror network. Friday's attack northeast of Baghdad killed two other militants, police said, the latest sign that an internal Sunni power struggle is spreading.
The U.S. military also announced the deaths of five more servicemen. At least 126 American troops were killed in Iraq in May, the third-deadliest month for U.S. forces since the war began more than four years ago.
May was also the third-deadliest for Iraqis since The Associated Press began tracking civilian casualties in April 2005. At least 2,155 Iraqis were killed last month, according to the AP count. The Iraqi government put the number at 2,123, according to officials at the Interior Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
The explosion in Baqouba came as Iraqi and U.S. troops fanned out in the Sunni stronghold of Amariyah in the capital, enforcing an indefinite curfew after heavily armed residents clashed with al-Qaida in Iraq fighters, apparently fed up with the group's brutal tactics.
"Al-Qaida fighters and leaders have completely destroyed Amariyah," said Abu Ahmed, a 40-year-old Sunni father of four who said he joined in the clashes. "No one can venture out, and all the businesses are closed. They kill everyone who criticizes them and is against their acts even if they are Sunnis."
Other residents, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution, said the clashes began after al-Qaida militants abducted and tortured Sunnis from the area. That prompted a large number of residents, including many members of the rival Islamic Army armed with guns and rocket-propelled grenades, to rise up against the terror network. U.S. forces joined them in the fighting Wednesday and Thursday.
Ahmed denied being a member of any insurgent group but said he sympathizes with "honest Iraqi resistance," referring to those opposed both to U.S.-led efforts in Iraq and to the brutal tactics of al-Qaida.
With the insurgency appearing increasingly fragmented, Iraqi officials congratulated Amariyah residents for confronting al-Qaida.
"Government security forces are now in control of the Amariyah district," Iraqi military spokesman Qassim al-Moussawi was quoted as saying by Iraqi state TV. He also lauded "the cooperation of local residents with the government."
U.S. and Iraqi officials have claimed recent success in the effort to isolate al-Qaida, particularly in the western Anbar province, where many Sunni tribes have banded together to fight the terror network.
Tribes reportedly turning against al-Qaida
A growing number of Sunni tribes have reportedly been turning against al-Qaida elsewhere as well, repelled by the terror network's sheer brutality and austere religious extremism.
The extremists also are competing with nationalist groups for influence and control over diminishing territory in the face of U.S. assaults, a situation exacerbated by the influx of Sunni fighters to areas outside the capital as they flee a nearly four-month-old security crackdown.
But the clashes in Amariyah appeared to be the fiercest fighting between Sunni groups in the capital.
"I think this is happening because of al-Qaida's brutality," said Ehsan Ahrari, professor and specialist in counterterrorism at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. "They have been hurting the Sunni population in Iraq and that is coming back to hurt al-Qaida."
"The event itself is significant because it looks like the U.S. is making some breakthrough in terms of establishing consensus with the Sunni population," he said. "Of course we have to hold our breath and see, but this is important no doubt."
Official casualty figures from the fighting in Amariyah were not available. But a local council member, who declined to be identified because of security concerns, said at least 31 people, including six al-Qaida militants, were killed and 45 other fighters were detained in the clashes. The council member also said an indefinite curfew was imposed starting at 6 a.m. on Friday, confining people to their houses.
The explosion in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, came as residents said al-Qaida was trying to regain control of the central Tahrir neighborhood from the 1920 Revolution Brigades, a group composed of officials and soldiers from the ousted regime who have allied themselves with local security forces against the terror network.
Local police said at least two members of the rival insurgent group were killed. The bomber was affiliated with al-Qaida in Iraq, according to police who would not be named because they feared they would be targeted.
Separately, the U.S. military announced that coalition forces killed six militants and detained 18 others in operations targeting al-Qaida in Iraq on Thursday and Friday.
Three children killed during U.S. attack
Three children, ages 7, 9 and 11, were also killed Friday during a U.S. attack on suspected militants trying to plant roadside bombs in Anbar province, the military said.
Nationwide, at least 32 Iraqis were killed or found dead on Friday, including 15 bullet-riddled bodies that turned up on the streets of Baghdad, apparent victims of so-called sectarian death squads usually run by Shiite militias.
The deadliest months in the past two years were December 2006, when at least 2,309 were killed, and November 2006, when at least 2,250 were killed.
The number of bodies found — usually attributed to sectarian death squads — dipped slightly in February 2007, immediately after the Baghdad security crackdown began Feb. 14, but has been steadily increasing in recent weeks. Since April 1, at least 1,974 bodies have been found across Iraq. At least 1,186 of these were found inside Baghdad, and 788 outside the capital.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military announced that three American soldiers were killed by small-arms fire in Baghdad over the past three days.
Another soldier died Thursday at a hospital in Maryland, two weeks after he was seriously wounded by a sniper while searching for American troops captured by al-Qaida-linked militants south of Baghdad.
The military also announced the death of a soldier from wounds suffered in a roadside bombing in Baghdad on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of Iraq's largest Shiite party, returned to Baghdad from Iran after completing the first phase of his treatment for lung cancer, according to the Web site of the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq.
Separately, the U.S. State Department said the publication of computer-generated projections for the new U.S. Embassy under construction in Baghdad on an architecture firm's Web site would be a factor in future security considerations but would not affect the operation as a whole.
"Obviously, the fact that some of this material has been out in the public domain is something our security folks will have to take into consideration as they move forward with construction and occupancy of the facility. But it hasn't in any fundamental way altered our plans," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said in Washington.