Da The Mercury del 18/10/2006
Originale su http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/news/world/15786311.htm

U.S. forces back in Balad

Shiite-sunni conflict shows threat of plan to divide states

di Steven R. Hurst

BAGHDAD, Iraq - U.S. forces were back patrolling the streets of the predominantly Shiite city of Balad on Tuesday after five days of sectarian slaughter killed 95 people, violence that surged out of control despite the efforts of Iraq's best-trained soldiers.

Iraq's 4th Army took command of the region north of Baghdad a month ago, but had been unable to stem recent attacks in Balad, where the slayings of 17 Shiite Muslim workers Friday set off revenge killings by Shiites.


SUNNIS ESCAPE

Minority Sunnis, who absorbed most of the brutality in the city of 80,000 people, have been fleeing across the Tigris River in small boats, Balad police commander Brig. Nebil al-Beldawi said. On the outskirts of the city, two fuel trucks were attacked and burned.

The police commander said gunmen wearing black uniforms, trademark clothing of Shiite militiamen, had clashed with residents of Ad-Duluiyah, a predominantly Sunni city on the east bank of the Tigris, opposite Balad. Beldawi said the militants were keeping food and fuel trucks from entering Ad-Duluiyah.

The conflict between Shiites and Sunnis in the Balad area illustrates the threat to the region should Iraq move toward dividing into three federal states -- controlled by Shiites in the south, Sunnis in the center and Kurds in the north.

Regions such as Baghdad and areas immediately to the north, including Balad, are now home to Shiites and Sunnis. Both groups would be expected to fight hard to maintain control of their territory, especially in the capital.

Last week, over the objection of nearly all Sunnis and some Shiites, the Shiite-dominated parliament voted to allow moves toward establishing federal states after an 18-month waiting period.

Dividing the country would close Sunnis off from oil wealth, which would end up with the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south. Sunni lands are largely desert or agricultural belts along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Forty mortar rounds poured into Balad overnight and into the morning, killing at least four people, bringing the death toll in the area to at least 95 in five days of fighting.

Gunmen in police uniforms hijacked 13 civilian cars and abducted their occupants at a checkpoint outside Balad on Monday night, Salahaddin provincial police reported. They remained missing Tuesday.

Elsewhere in Iraq, 36 people were killed Tuesday in violent attacks and 16 more corpses were found in the capital, their hands and legs bound and showing signs of torture, police reported.


DAILY DEATH TOLL: 45

According to an Associated Press count, October is on track to be the deadliest month for Iraqis since the AP began tracking deaths in April 2005. In October, 767 Iraqis have been killed in war-related violence, an average of 45 a day.

That compares to an average daily death toll of about 27 since April 2005. The AP count includes civilians, government officials and police and security forces, and is considered a minimum based on AP reporting. The actual number is probably higher, as many killings go unreported.

Iraqi officials, particularly Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, are under intense pressure to disband Shiite militias believed responsible for most of the killings in Balad and heavy involvement in violence elsewhere.

The fighters, allied to Shiite political groups, are widely believed to have infiltrated the Shiite-dominated police and security forces and to be allowed freedom to attack Sunni Muslims without fear of arrest or interference.

The U.S. military symbolically handed control of parts of Salahaddin province to the 3rd Battalion, 1st Brigade, 4th Iraqi Army Division on April 15. That region included Balad and Ad-Duluiyah, as well as surrounding villages. Full control of the province was officially turned over to the 4th Army on Sept. 18.

As the violence in the Balad region was reaching full pitch Saturday, the AP asked the U.S. military in Baghdad if U.S. forces were involved in trying to quell the killing.

As of this time, the U.S.-led force ``has not been asked to provide any assistance,'' the military said in a return e-mail. A request for information Sunday went unanswered.

In response to the same question Monday, the military said U.S.-led forces were ``partnering with Iraqi police and Iraqi army units involved in operations around Balad.''


U.S. MILITARY ROLE

Tuesday morning, the military said the U.S.-led force was again ``partnering with and assisting the Iraqi police and army by providing quick reaction assets. The Iraqi police and army are currently manning numerous checkpoints around Balad.''

By late Tuesday, the military had not responded to questions about when the U.S. military first was asked to intervene and how many U.S. forces were involved.

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