/ 4 September 2005

Insurgents target Iraqi security forces

Insurgents killed 19 Iraqi security forces on Saturday in clashes around Baqouba, while United States and Iraqi forces intensified an offensive in a rebel-infested city that the Americans subdued last year — only to have the Iraqis lose control.

Eight police officers died in a pair of shootouts in Baqouba, 55km north-east of Baghdad, officials said. Six police officers and two soldiers were killed in another gun battle in Buhriz, a suburb of the Baqouba, officials said.

Three Iraqi soldiers also died on Saturday when their convoy was attacked by gunmen near Adhaim, 50km north of Baqouba, police said.

To the north, fighting raged for a second day on Saturday in the outskirts of Tal Afar, an ethnically mixed insurgent stronghold.

US and Iraqi officials urged civilians to leave affected areas of the city, 420km north-west of Baghdad, a sign that the Americans were preparing a major assault. US forces crushed insurgents in Tal Afar last fall, leaving only about 500 American soldiers behind and handing over control to the Iraqis.

But Iraqi authorities lost control of the city, and insurgent ranks swelled. That forced the US command to shift the Third Armoured Cavalry Regiment from the Baghdad area to Tal Afar to restore order.

On Saturday, US and Iraqi forces were firing at insurgents on the western side of the city, Iraqi officials said. Elsewhere, American and Iraqi forces were moving house-to-house, searching for weapons and arresting men capable of firing them, Iraqi authorities said.

Hospital officials said they were unsure of casualties because it was too dangerous for ambulances to reach the area. Officials said they hoped to get ambulances into the area on Sunday.

‘No religion accepts these acts’

Elsewhere, four civilians were killed and 11 wounded when four mortar shells fired at a US installation missed the target and exploded in a mixed residential and commercial area of Samarra, the US military and Iraqi police said.

The blasts shattered shops and left pools of blood on the dusty streets of the city, 95km north of Baghdad. Doctors and nurses at the local hospital struggled to bandage the wounded, some of them with horrific shrapnel wounds. Doctors hovered over one man with bone protruding from his left leg.

A 10-year-old boy lay naked on a bed, with his head, arm and leg swathed in bandages. Rumours spread that the Americans fired the rounds, but US and Iraqi officials insisted they did not.

”We were at work and were hit by a mortar round while trying to earn bread for our children,” shouted one man who would not give his name. ”It was a workshop, for God’s sake. Where is the government? Where is the Cabinet? How long will the Americans continue to do this? No religion accepts these acts, not even the Christians.”

Gunmen also abducted three Iraqi contractors after they left the US-run Taji air base about 15km north of Baghdad, police Lieutenant Miqdad al-Khazragi said.

US and Iraqi soldiers killed one insurgent and arrested 10 others in operations starting late on Friday in the Mosul area, the military said.

Political battle

US and Iraqi officials had hoped that a new Constitution, finalised on August 28 after weeks of intense negotiations, would help bring Iraq’s factions together and in time lure Sunni Arabs away from the Sunni-dominated insurgency.

Instead, the bitter talks sharpened communal tensions, at a time when both Sunnis and Shi’ites accused extremists from the other community of killing their civilians. Discreet talks are under way to make changes in the language of the draft to ease Sunni Arab hostility to the document.

However, both Sunni and Shi’ite community leaders are gearing up for a decisive political battle in the October 15 referendum. Sunni clerics are urging their followers to reject the charter while most of the Shi’ite clergy support it.

Hundreds of Sunni Arabs met in Baghdad on Saturday urge the defeat of the Constitution, which threatens ”Iraq’s division”.

The head of the biggest Shi’ite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said on Saturday there was a ”conspiracy to annihilate the Shi’ite sect in Iraq”.

Party leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim spoke at a funeral for some of the nearly 1 000 Shi’ites killed in the stampede that broke out on Thursday during a Shi’ite procession at a Baghdad bridge. The stampede began because of rumours that a suicide bomber was among the crowd. — Sapa-AP