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Security crisis deepens with Baghdad attacks

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published July 23, 2006


BAGHDAD - Two U.S. soldiers were killed Saturday in Baghdad, seven Shiite construction workers were gunned down and five Sunni civilians were blown up, deepening the capital's security crisis. Shiite politicians called on the prime minister to cancel his visit to Washington to protest Israel's attacks in Lebanon.

Elsewhere, U.S. and Iraqi forces backed by a helicopter gunship launched a major attack Saturday on a headquarters of a radical Shiite militia south of Baghdad, killing 15 militiamen in a three-hour battle, the United States said.

One U.S. soldier died in the second of two roadside bombs that exploded in east Baghdad mid morning. An Iraqi civilian was killed by the first blast, police said. Another U.S. soldier died Saturday evening when gunmen attacked his patrol with small arms fire, the military said.

The seven Shiite workers were killed and two were wounded when gunmen opened fire on a construction site near Baghdad International Airport, police said. Later Saturday, a mortar shell killed five civilians at a market in the mostly Sunni neighborhood of Amil in west Baghdad, police said.

Two rockets blasted the heavily guarded Green Zone, which includes the U.S. and British embassies as well as major Iraqi government offices, but the U.S. military said there were no casualties.

Much of the violence appeared to be part of the tit-for-tat reprisal killings by Sunni and Shiite extremists that have led to a dramatic deterioration of security in the Iraqi capital.

With violence rising, the United States is moving to bolster American troop strength in the Baghdad area, putting on hold plans to draw down on the 127,000-member U.S. military mission in Iraq.

U.S. officials have pointed to Shiite militias as a major cause of sectarian violence. In a bid to curb militia influence, American troops moved Saturday against the Mahdi Army of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Musayyib, 40 miles south of Baghdad.

U.S. troops reported killing 15 gunmen in a three-hour firefight in Musayyib but described them only as "thugs and criminals" who had tried to take over the city.

In London, the British military announced Saturday that British troops arrested the Mahdi Army commander in Basra in raids last weekend.

The security crisis in Baghdad is expected to figure prominently when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki meets President Bush at the White House on Tuesday.

The visit comes amid rising anger among Iraqis over Israel's attacks in Lebanon, launched after Shiite Hezbollah militiamen seized two Israeli soldiers. The Fadhila party, part of Maliki's Shiite alliance, on Saturday urged the prime minister to call off his visit.

Maliki, a former Shiite activist who spent years in exile in Syria, has condemned Israel's offensive and has complained that the United States and the international community have not done enough to stop it.

Maliki told reporters he would convey that message personally to Bush.

"The hostile acts against Lebanon will have effects on the region and we are not far from what is going on in Lebanon," Maliki said. "We will speak with the United Nations and American government to call for a cease-fire quickly."

Maliki spoke following the first meeting of a government committee formed to reconcile Iraq's disparate sectarian and political groups, but differences emerged immediately between top Shiite and Sunni officials over the issue of amnesty for insurgents.

Maliki told reporters that despite his proposal for amnesty for some insurgents, "all those whose hands were tainted with blood should be brought to justice."

But the Sunni speaker of parliament, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, snapped back, saying that "if we punish a person who killed an American soldier, who is an occupier, we should punish the American soldiers who killed an Iraqi who fought against occupation."

Most of the insurgents who have been fighting U.S. forces are Sunnis. The United States and the Iraqi government have sought to reach out to selected insurgent groups in hopes of persuading them to lay down their arms.

Ten Iraqi soldiers were killed when a roadside bomb struck a convoy in Karmah, west of Fallujah in the insurgent stronghold of Anbar province, police Lt. Ahmed Ali said.