Mar 262006

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Police found 30 corpses, most beheaded, near a village north of the capital Sunday night, in the latest wave of sectarian killings engulfing Iraq. At least 16 people were killed during a clash involving U.S. forces at a Shiite mosque in Baghdad.

Elsewhere in the capital, American troops raided an Interior Ministry building on Sunday and briefly detained about 10 Iraqi policemen after discovering 17 Sudanese prisoners in the facility, Iraqi authorities said.

The short-lived raid was reminiscent of a U.S. raid last November that found detainees apparently tortured, but in this case the Americans quickly determined the Sudanese were being legitimately held and had not been abused, said Maj. Gen. Ali Ghalib, a deputy interior minister. The U.S. military command in Baghdad had no immediate comment on the report.

The fighting at the mosque erupted hours after a mortar round slammed to earth near radical anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s home in the Shiite holy city of Najaf. The popular anti-American cleric was home but was not hurt, an aide said.

The incidents also came a day after U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad spoke out on the need to cap the sectarian, militia-inspired killing, saying “More Iraqis are dying today from the militia violence than from the terrorists.” He did not say which militias he meant nor did he define who the terrorists were.

Police said the bodies were found north of Baghdad after police and soldiers were dispatched to respond to a report of killings in Mullah Eid, a village near the town of Buhriz, a former stronghold of ex-President Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party about 35 miles north of Baghdad.

Authorities gave no immediate information on the identities of the victims or on who may have been responsible. The dead were transferred to a morgue in Baghdad, police 1st Lt. Thaer Mahmoud said.

Radical Shiites, meanwhile, said 18 people were killed by U.S. and Iraqi forces at a mosque in eastern Baghdad. Police said 22 died, while the American military said 16 “insurgents” were killed by Iraqi special forces with U.S. troops on the scene as backup.

“No mosques were entered or damaged during this operation,” the military said in a statement at least five hours after the clash.

“As elements of the 1st Iraqi Special Operations Forces Brigade entered their objective, they came under fire. In the ensuing exchange of fire…(Iraqi troops) killed 16 insurgents. As they secured their objective, they detained 15 more individuals,” the military statement said.

A child and at least one guard were wounded in the mortar attack earlier Sunday that hit some 165 feet from al-Sadr’s home, according to police and al-Sadr aide Sheik Sahib al-Amiri.

Iraqi troops sealed the area and the cleric’s Mahdi Army militia surrounded the home after the attack, al-Amiri said. Al-Sadr lives near the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, about 90 miles south of Baghdad.

Shortly after the attack, the cleric issued a statement calling for calm.

“I call upon all brothers to stay calm, and I call upon Iraqi army to protect the pilgrims as the Nawasib (militants) are aiming to attack Shiites everyday,” he said ahead of Wednesday’s commemoration marking the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

Najaf police chief called the assault a “cowardly attack” by those still loyal to Saddam Hussein aimed at dividing the Iraqi people.

“But this will not happen,” Maj. Gen. Abbas Mi’adal told reporters near al-Sadr’s home. “We are ready to confront any terrorist schemes and protect the pilgrims.”

At least 23 Iraqis were killed in violence elsewhere, including a 13-year-old boy killed by a bomb as he walked to school in the southern city of Basra. Police also found 11 handcuffed and bullet-riddled bodies dumped in Baghdad and two in the city of Baqouba.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, meanwhile, said the U.S. could withdraw a significant number of troops from Iraq this year if Iraqi forces are able to assume greater control of the country’s security.

“I think it’s entirely probable that we will see a significant drawdown of American forces over the next year. … It’s all dependent on events on the ground,” the chief American diplomat said Sunday, echoing military commanders.

Just this past week, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declined to predict when U.S. forces would be out of Iraq. President Bush has said that decision would be up to a future U.S. president and a future Iraqi government.

Rice, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” noted that Gen. George Casey, the top commander in Iraq, “has talked about a significant reduction of American forces over the next year. And that significant reduction is because Iraqi forces are taking and holding territory now.”

There were conflicting reports about Sunday’s attack in Najaf, which came a day after the cleric’s Mahdi Army militia forces battled with Sunni insurgents near Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of the capital. Seven people – most civilians killed in their homes by mortar fire – died in the gunbattle and several others were wounded.

Al-Sadr’s aide said two mortar rounds fell near the home Sunday, wounding two guards and the child, while the police chief said it was just one mortar round that wounded one guard and the child.

Al-Sadr, who routinely blames the United States for the violence that has beset the country, said American troops were trying to drag Iraqis into “sectarian wars.”

“I call upon my brothers not to be trapped by the Westerners’ plots,” he said.

Al-Sadr, who has close ties to Iran, is a major force among Shiites, especially in Baghdad’s Sadr City slum. His powerful militia, which launched two uprisings against U.S. troops in 2004, is accused of carrying out sectarian revenge killings against Sunnis after the Feb. 22 bombing of an important Shiite shrine in Samarra.

Ghalib played down the significance of the raid on the Interior Ministry building, saying “it is normal for the friendly (U.S.) forces to enter the building.”

The Sudanese were being held for “violating residency laws,” Ghalib said, adding that the U.S. troops later “transferred the Sudanese detainees to another location and released the detained policemen.”

Mahmoud originally reported that 40 policemen were detained by the Americans, but Ghalib put the number at about 10.

The bomb that killed the teenage boy was placed in front of his school in Basra, near the Iranian border southeast of Baghdad. It went off in the morning as children were arriving for classes, police said. The school week begins Sunday and runs through Thursday in Iraq, where Friday is the day of prayer for Muslims.

A bomb also exploded in front of a house in central Baghdad, killing one woman and wounding two of her sisters and a man next door. And a truck driver was gunned down in west Baghdad, police said.

Drive-by shooters killed three teenagers and wounded another standing outside a house in south Baghdad’s Dora district, police said.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s national security ministry issued a statement warning citizens of the mostly Sunni neighborhood of Yarmouk that insurgents were placing explosives in boxes of candy.

In other violence Saturday, according to police:

– Security guards for the Iraqi finance minister were attacked while driving in western Baghdad before they had picked up the minister. One guard was killed, and a bystander was wounded.

– Gunmen killed a policeman and his cousin as they walked north of Baqouba.

– A farmer was killed in Buhriz.

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