BAGHDAD, Iraq – The U.S. military nearly set off a sectarian crisis Monday by mistakenly arresting the leader of Iraq's top Sunni Muslim (search) political party, while two homicide bombers killed about 30 police, and U.S. fighter jets destroyed insurgent strongholds near Syria's border.
Northeast of Baghdad, an Iraqi military aircraft crashed Monday during a mission with four American troops and one Iraqi on board, the U.S. military said. It was not immediately clear what their condition was or even what kind of aircraft it was.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. military in Baghdad, Sgt. Kate Neuman, said the four Americans were military personnel.
And on Memorial Day, the U.S. military said American soldier Spc. Phillip Sayles, of the 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment (search), was killed in an attack Saturday in the northern city of Mosul. As of Monday, at least 1,657 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
The arrest of Iraqi Islamic Party leader Mohsen Abdul-Hamid (search), his three sons and four guards did little to help efforts to entice Iraq's once-dominant Sunni community back into the political fold. The Sunnis lost their influence following Saddam Hussein's ouster two years ago.
Many believe the Sunni fall from grace, and parallel rise to power of Iraq's majority Shiite population, is spurring the raging insurgency, driving many disenchanted Sunnis to launch attacks that have killed more than 760 people since the April 28 announcement of the Shiite-dominated new government. Bringing Sunnis back into the political fold could soothe some tensions.
In a commitment to end the violence, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari vowed that "Operation Lightning" (search), the large-scale campaign that began Sunday, would rid Baghdad of militants and, in particular, homicide car bombers, the deadliest and regular weapon of choice for insurgents.
At a news conference, he said the goal was "to quickly come to the protection of civilians and stop the bloodshed."
But renewed carnage south of the capital showed the difficulty of his job.
Two homicide bombers blew themselves up outside the mayor's office in Hillah, 60 miles south of Baghdad. The attackers waded into a crowd of 500 policemen staging an early-morning protest of a government decision to disband their special forces unit.
Staggering the detonations by one minute and 100 yards apart to maximize the casualties, the bombers killed at least 27 policemen and wounded 118 in an attack that scattered body parts, blood and shards of glass across a wide area, said police Capt. Muthana Khalid Ali.
The Polish military, which controls the area, said about 30 Iraqis were killed. The conflicting tolls were apparently linked to the difficulty in trying to count the dead because of all the body parts strewn around the blast site.
"I just saw a ball of fire and flying pieces of flesh. After that, confused policemen started firing into the air," he said.
In an apparent claim of responsibility, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Al Qaeda in Iraq (search) said in an Internet statement that one of its members carried out an attack "against a group of special Iraqi forces." The statement's authenticity could not be verified.
In an audiotape purportedly made by al-Zarqawi, he assured Usama bin Laden that he was in good health after being wounded in a fire fight with U.S. troops.
There was no way to confirm that the voice was that of Jordanian-born terror leader, but the recording was carried by a Web site frequently used by militant Islamic groups, and the voice sounded similar to that previously attributed to al-Zarqawi.
In the message, the speaker asked bin Laden for guidance on conducting the insurgency.
"We would like to assure you that we are continuing on the path of jihad, we are committed to our pledge," the speaker said. "We will either win or die trying."
Militants regard Iraqi security forces as prime targets in their campaign against the U.S. military, which hinges its eventual exit from Iraq on the ability of local soldiers and police to handle the insurgency.
Violence across northern Iraq killed at least nine others, with gunmen slaying a senior Kurdish official in Kirkuk and a Sunni tribal leader in Mosul, a roadside bomb killing a civilian in Baqouba and Iraqi soldiers shooting to death six insurgents in Mosul and northern Anbar province.
U.S. warplanes and helicopters attacked insurgents near Husaybah, on the Syrian border, west of Baghdad, the military said.
"There were enemy casualties, but due to the destruction of the buildings from which they were firing, we are unable to determine the number of enemy fighters killed and wounded," military spokeswoman Lt. Blanca Binstock said.
U.S. forces have launched several offensives in western Iraq aimed at rooting out Sunni extremists crisscrossing the desert frontier with Syria to smuggle in foreign fighters and weapons.
Fears of sectarian violence have whipped across Iraq amid the latest violence, which has seen Shiite and Sunni clerics kidnapped, tortured and shot.
In recent weeks, Shiite and Sunni leaders have met to try to settle their differences, with both camps declaring their intent to work to end the violence.
But Monday's roughly 12-hour detention of Abdul-Hamid flared tensions yet again, causing Sunni leaders to condemn his arrest and accuse American authorities of trying to alienate their community.
Few details were available on why the Americans arrested the Sunni leader, but it appeared to be related to the ongoing Sunni-led insurgency and fears of a broader sectarian conflict starting up.
The U.S. military acknowledged it had made a "mistake" by detaining Abdul-Hamid.
"Following the interview, it was determined that he was detained by mistake and should be released," the military said. "Coalition forces regret any inconvenience and acknowledge (Abdul-Hamid's) cooperation in resolving this matter."
Iraqi authorities suggested someone had planted "lies" against him in a bid to stir up "sectarian sedition."
Abdul-Hamid himself said U.S. forces questioned him about the "current situation," an apparent reference to the wave of attacks.
Following his release, Abdul-Hamid told reporters how "U.S. special forces" blew open the doors to his home "and dragged (his sons and guards) outside like sheep."
"They forced me to lay on the ground along with my sons and guards and one of the soldiers put his foot on my neck for 20 minutes," he told Al-Jazeera TV.
Soldiers later put him into a helicopter and flew him to an unknown location for more questioning, he said. He said he did not know the whereabouts of his sons and guards.
"At the time when the Americans say they are keen on real Sunni participation, they are now arresting the head of the only Sunni party that calls for a peaceful solution and have participated in the political process," said Iraqi Islamic Party Secretary-General Ayad al-Samarei.
Abdul-Hamid's party had in recent weeks taken steps to become more involved in the political process after boycotting the Jan. 30 parliamentary elections, which were dominated by parties drawn from Iraq's majority Shiite population.