Saturday, June 24, 2006

Iraqis frustrated with new prime minister

Iraqis frustrated with new prime minister
Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
June 24, 2006

BAGHDAD, Iraq--Iraqis expressed frustration with their new prime minister on Saturday, complaining he caused confusion in the capital when he ordered them off the streets in response to fighting between heavily armed insurgents and U.S. and Iraqi forces.

The U.S. military announced the deaths of three more American soldiers, two in roadside bombings and one in what it said was a "non-combat incident."

Shiites held a funeral procession for two men killed while protesting a recent suicide attack that targeted a Shiite shrine in Baghdad. Insurgents fired at the Shiite marchers, then attacked U.S. and Iraqi forces as they headed to the site, an Interior Ministry official said.

Friday's fierce fighting in the heart of Baghdad came despite a 10-day-old crackdown that put tens of thousands of U.S.-backed Iraqi troops on the streets as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sought to restore a modicum of safety for the capital's 6 million people. The prime minister responded by slapping a curfew on the capital with only two hours notice.

"Te sudden decision to impose the curfew caused troubles for the citizens," said 45-year-old engineer Khalid Abdel-Rahman. "The people were informed about the new time of the curfew with very short notice and many people were trapped in the streets or their shops."

The Interior Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information, said three worshippers participating in the march were wounded and members of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Mahdi army, returned fire.

U.S. and Iraqi forces headed to the site to help control the melee, but they were attacked by Sunni insurgents on nearby Haifa Street and fierce fighting ensued in the alleys and doorways of the thoroughfare, according to the official.

Police Col. Ali Rashid also said that heated exchanges broke out when Iraqi security forces demanded that al-Sadr's militiamen withdraw from the area and let them handle the situation, but the situation was defused.

There were conflicting reports about how many people were killed or injured.

The interior ministry official said a member of the Mahdi army was killed and three were wounded in the initial fighting, five Iraqi soldiers and three police died during the clashes on Haifa Street and eight suspected insurgents were arrested.

But Ibrahim al-Jabri, an official in al-Sadr's office in eastern Baghdad, said six worshippers were killed and 10 wounded when the insurgents attacked the protest.

Police Lt. Maitham Abdul Razzaq said Friday that four Iraqi soldiers and three policemen were wounded before the area was sealed and searched house-to-house for insurgent attackers. U.S. and Iraqi forces also engaged in firefights with insurgents Friday in the dangerous Dora neighborhood in south Baghdad.

Osama Ahmed, 50, who works for the ministry of higher education, said he was annoyed that the curfew kept him from doing errands on Friday, the start of the Islamic weekend.

"I expected an ordinary Friday that in which I can shop and visit some friends, but instead I found my self kept in my house," he said. "What happened yesterday shows that the country is at an impasse."

Deadly clashes are not new to Haifa Street, a thoroughfare so dangerous that a sign at one Green Zone exit checkpoint warns drivers against using the street, which was the scene of some of the heaviest resistance when U.S. forces swept into Baghdad in March 2003. The area has remained difficult to control because many residents have natural links to the Sunni-led insurgency, but Friday's fighting was unusual in its scope and intensity.

The curfew was imposed even as the main weekly Islamic religious services were being held in mosques throughout the city.

Clusters of women shrouded in black head-to-toe robes scurried along to beat the ban, and U.S. soldiers frisked men also dashing home against a backdrop of thick, black smoke rising above the white high-rise buildings of Haifa Street.

Helicopters flitted back and forth overhead.

Defense Ministry official Maj. Gen. Abdul-Aziz Mohamed Jassim initially said all Baghdad residents must be off the streets from 2 p.m. until 6 a.m. Saturday, but al-Maliki later declared the ban would end just three hours after it began.

Jassim also said the city was under a state of emergency that included a renewed prohibition on carrying weapons and gave Iraqi security forces broader arrest powers to prevent civilian casualties. He did not give a timeframe for those measures, and the prime minister's office said Saturday that no state of emergency was in place.

Violence continued Saturday in Baghdad and elsewhere.

A roadside bomb struck a police patrol near the al-Sadiq University for Islamic Studies in a predominantly Shiite area in northern Baghdad, killing two policemen and wounding three others, police said.

Police also found an unidentified body of a man who had been handcuffed, bound by the legs and shot to death in the capital.

In the northern city of Kirkuk, a roadside bomb killed the local chief of intelligence, Maj. Gen. Mussa Hatam, along with two of his guards, Brig. Sarhat Qadir said.

The U.S. military also reported Saturday that a roadside bomb killed a U.S. soldier in central Baghdad on Friday in addition to two other Multi-National Division-Baghdad soldiers who died the same day were when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb southeast of the capital.

At least 10 other U.S. troops were killed or found dead in Iraq this week, including the discovery of the bodie s of two American soldiers who went missing after an attack on their checkpoint.

At least 2,518 members of the U.S. military have died since the war started more than three years ago, according to an Associated Press count.

On the political front, the prime minister's office confirmed the government will present a 28-point national reconciliation plan to parliament Sunday that would grant some insurgents amnesty and ask for approval of a series of steps for Iraqis to take over security from U.S. troops.

Contributing: AP writers Kim Gamel and Qais al-Bashir.


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