Sunni extremists seized control of a remote village north-east of Baghdad in a fierce battle with residents who pleaded for rescue by Iraqi army and police as they tried to defend their homes, the deputy provincial governor said today.
The fight underlines the continued struggle in Diyala province on Baghdad’s northern gates, where militants believed to be from al Qaida in Iraq have reportedly left mass graves of victims in areas under their hold.
For the past three weeks, US troops have been fighting to dislodge insurgents who had turned the provincial capital, Baqouba, in to their stronghold and were using it to launch attacks in nearby Baghdad.
The soldiers have found whole streets and buildings wired with explosives, bomb and weapons factories and prisons run by extremists – and, Iraqi officials say, the bodies of 35 people slain by militants and dumped in village on Baqouba’s outskirts.
But fleeing insurgents appear to be trying to capture more territory further north in Diyala, where Iraqi security forces are fewer.
Iraqi officials say the extremists have held sway for months in numerous towns and villages – and parts of larger cities – across the sprawling mountainous agricultural province, intimidating residents and imposing strict Islamic law.
The fight for Diyala has highlighted the weaknesses of the Iraqi security forces, which US commanders acknowledge are unable to stand on their own despite three years of efforts to train them. Devastating suicide bombings north of Baqouba over the weekend raised sharp criticism from Iraqi politicians that the country’s troops were failing to provide protection.
There were few details of the fighting in the village of Sherween, a village of 7,000 Shiites and Sunnis. But the assault appeared to be an attempt by extremists to move into a new area, where residents say the two communities have gotten along relatively well.
A Sherween resident today called Diyala Deputy Gov. Auf Rahim and told him insurgents launched an assault on the village the day before and that fighting was still raging.
“Come help us or they will slaughter us all,” Rahim said the resident told him in the call. Armed villagers were fighting back, but the attackers appeared to have largely gained control, Rahim said.
Rahim said the caller told him 25 militants and 18 residents were killed and 40 people wounded in the fighting, he said. The casualty figures could not be independently confirmed. The resident said the fighters belonged to al Qaida in Iraq.
A resident of the town of Dali Abbas, neighbouring Sherween, told AP “the area has come under attack since yesterday, and the people of the village are the only ones defending it.” He spoke on condition his name not be used for fear of reprisals.
An Iraqi army officer in the Mansouria region close to Sherween confirmed that insurgents appeared to be in control of the village, 35 miles north-west of Baqouba.
Al Qaida in Iraq and other Sunni radicals took widespread control in Diyala last fall after Sunni tribesmen in western Anbar province began turning against them.
“The centres of leadership and primary control of all the terrorist organisations is located in Diyala,” Iraqi military spokesman Maj General Mohammed al-Askari told reporters today.
Al Qaida in Iraq emerged several years ago under the leadership of Abu Musa al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian radical who was killed last year in a US airstrike in Diyala. The Iraqi chapter’s relationship to the network led by Osama bin Laden remains a topic of debate among experts.
US commanders have said al Qaida in Iraq and its allies are the main target of the Baqouba offensive – reflecting an American strategy to woo other Iraqi Sunni insurgent groups.
The Baqouba offensive is part of an intensified security sweep in and around Baghdad aimed at pacifying the capital to boost the beleaguered Iraqi government and allow it to pass benchmark political reforms that US officials hope will draw Sunnis away from the insurgency.
A heavy barrage of up to two dozen mortars were fired Tuesday at Baghdad’s Green Zone, the heavily fortified district where the Iraqi government and the US Embassy are centred. There were no casualty reports available.
But while the rate of bloodshed has lowered in Baghdad, insurgents have been able to carry out devastating attacks further north. Over the weekend, a suicide truck bomber demolished a market in a Shiite town near the Diyala border, killing at least 160 in one of the deadliest bombings of the war. Another bomber hit a Shiite village Friday not far from Sherween, killing 22 people.
Meanwhile, political reforms have stalled amid a government crisis caused by divisions between Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders in the coalition of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Amid increasing pressure at home for a US withdrawal, the US ambassador to Baghdad and top American commander in Iraq are due to give an interim progress report on the Iraq strategy in May. A US official said a draft of the report concludes that none of the political benchmarks has been achieved.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said today that the report is only “a look at the starting line” of the strategy and shouldn’t be used by critics to demand a troop pullout.
US commanders say they are making progress in clearing Baqouba, but they say many insurgent leaders escaped the city.
In late June, US forces found a grave with six bodies in the village of Ahamir, on Baqouba’s northern outskirts, according to Multinational Forces-Iraq.
Freelance journalist Michael Yon, embedded with US troops in Baqouba, visited the gravesite with an American cavalry unit. Yon said he was told by military personnel in the vicinity that the killings were presumably carried out by al Qaida in Iraq militants, but he was unable to interview any survivors or witnesses to obtain details or confirmation.
The village appeared to be abandoned. Beside the Americans, Iraqi troops were present helping to dig up the bodies. Some of the disinterred corpses appeared to be fairly recently killed and others showed greater decomposition, suggesting they were older graves, according to Yon.
This week, an official at Diyala’s Health Ministry control office, which keeps track of bodies, told AP that authorities had found the bodies of 35 men at Ahamir and brought them to Baqouba morgue. All had been shot and some showed signs of torture, including whippings and branding, and appeared to have been killed recently, said the official. The men were Sunnis, according to families who retrieved the bodies, said the official.