Iraq's Shiite-led government declared Saturday that after restive areas are calmed, it will disband Sunni groups battling Islamic extremists because it does not want them to become a separate military force.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkish warplanes bombed Kurdish rebel targets, the military said, in the third confirmed cross-border offensive by Turkish forces in less than a week.
The statement from Defense Minister Abdul-Qadir al-Obaidi was the government's most explicit declaration yet of its intent to eventually dismantle the groups backed and funded by the United States as a vital tool for reducing violence.
The militias, more than 70,000 strong and often made up of former insurgents, are known as Awakening Councils, or Concerned Local Citizens.
No 'third military organization'
"We completely, absolutely reject the Awakening becoming a third military organization," al-Obaidi said at a news conference.
He added that the groups would also not be allowed to have any infrastructure, such as a headquarters building, that would give them long-term legitimacy.
"We absolutely reject that," al-Obaidi said.
The government has pledged to absorb about a quarter of the men into the predominantly Shiite-controlled security services and military, and provide vocational training so that the rest can find jobs. Integration would also allow Sunnis to regain lost influence in the key defense and interior ministries.
"We've kicked al-Qaida out and we don't want chaos to take their place," said Sheik Hate Ail, a tribal leader who helped form one of the groups in the western province of Anbar.
He added that the government should not "brazenly exploit the sacrifices of these Iraqi" fighters and "should absorb these people, not reject them and send them away."
The government has been vague about its plans and the interior ministry has agreed to hire about 7,000 men so far on temporary contracts, and plans to hire an additional 3,000. But the ministry has neither specified the length of the contracts nor the positions the men would fill.
The Sunni irregulars have contributed to a 60 percent drop in violence in the last half of the year, along with the infusion of thousands of U.S. troops and a six-month cease-fire by firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
The leader of al-Qaida in Iraq called on militants to kill members of the councils in a new audiotape posted Saturday on the Internet. Abu Omar al-Baghdadi said militants should kill members of the militias instead of slaughtering animals to mark Eid al-Adha _ a four-day religious holiday for Muslims marked by the sacrifice of cows, sheep, goats and bulls. The holiday ended Saturday.
"I call on you today to sacrifice ... the apostates of the awakening (councils) because they have became supporters for the cross and stood against the mujahadeen, violating the honor and looting the money," said al-Baghdadi.
The authenticity of the tape could not be verified, but it was posted on a Web site commonly used by Islamic militants. No photo has ever appeared of al-Baghdadi, whom the U.S. describes as a fictitious character used to give an Iraqi face to an organization dominated by foreigners.
Meanwhile, warplanes crossed into Iraqi Kurdistan from Turkey, carrying out a half-hour bombing raid, the Turkish military said. Turkish forces also shelled the border area from inside its territory, but did not say how deep into Iraq the warplanes penetrated, or which areas were shelled.
The United States and Iraq have urged Turkey to avoid a major operation in the region, fearing it could destabilize Iraq's calmest area. Kurdish rebels have battled for autonomy in southeastern Turkey for more than two decades and use strongholds in northern Iraq for cross-border strikes.
Thousands of Baghdad residents took advantage of the newfound sense of security Saturday to leave their homes in droves and pack the capital's parks and amusement rides.
"I wish peace and prosperity to our beloved country Iraq and hope all our brothers, sons and families who live abroad come back and God willing, during the next Eid all Iraqis will come together and peace, security and brotherhood will prevail," Abdul Jabbar Kadhim, an employee at the Dora oil refinery, told AP Television News as he played with his children in a riverside park.
But although there have been far fewer attacks, violence has by no means been eradicated.
A suicide car bomb exploded at a checkpoint manned by Iraqi army and police in the western Baghdad neighborhood of Ghazaliyah Saturday afternoon, killing four people and wounding six, a police officer said on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to release information to the media.
The dead were two civilians, a policeman and a soldier, while the wounded included two policemen and two soldiers, the officers said.
On the southern outskirts of the capital, a roadside bomb injured five bystanders near a hospital in the town of Madin, police said. It was unclear what the target was. To the north in Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, another roadside bomb targeting a passing police patrol killed one policeman and injured two others, local police said.
In Diyala, where extremists remain very active, U.S. troops discovered a Shiite village that had been systematically destroyed in an area where al-Qaida in Iraq has been operating in recent months.
Towakal was a village of about 100 homes on the northern outskirts of Muqdadiyah, about 60 miles north of Baghdad. It was surrounded by Sunni villages and at one point the residents apparently abandoned it. It was then razed by insurgents.
U.S. army soldiers from the Blackfoot Company, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment and an AP photographer at the scene said the homes had been systematically blown up about eight months before. Graffiti left on the walls read "this is God's work," and numerous booby traps had been left behind.