BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S.-led forces detained more than a dozen suspected militants in a counterinsurgency sweep through western Anbar (search) province as part of a sustained effort to disrupt the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, the military said Thursday.
Separately, a Sunni Arab politician who brokered secret talks between American officials and insurgents said he has formed a group to give political voice to Iraqi fighters, and he demanded a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal.
Former Cabinet member Ayham al-Samarie (search) announced the creation of the National Council for Unity and Construction of Iraq on Wednesday to give representation to Iraqi fighters. Al-Samarie, a dual Iraq-U.S. citizen, is believed to have strong tribal links in the so-called Sunni Triangle (search) in central Iraq, where the Sunni branch of the insurgency is concentrated.
He was the target of a death threat issued Thursday on an Islamic Web site, claiming he was spreading lies.
The developments came amid growing violence that has killed more than 1,370 people — mostly civilians and Iraqi forces — since Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari announced his Shiite-led government April 28. With the Sunni Arab-dominated insurgency targeting the Shiite majority, the wave of killings has slowly been pushing the country toward civil war.
There have been several U.S.-led military campaigns trying to quell the sectarian bloodshed by taking aim at foreign fighter networks.
More than 1,000 American and Iraqi troops taking part in the most recent effort — Operation Sword — have detained 13 insurgents in the Anbar provincial city of Hit, 85 miles west of Baghdad.
The troops have met little resistance since the operation began Tuesday, said Marine Capt. Jeffrey Pool. The raids also have netted several hundred mortar and artillery rounds along with explosives, rifles and two roadside bombs, the spokesman said.
The troops were moving through Euphrates River communities in the third major campaign in Anbar province in recent weeks. Pool said no casualties were reported among American and Iraqi troops participating in the operation.
Marines raided about 100 shops and homes looking for weapons before dawn Thursday in Hit, knocking down doors with sledgehammers and using shotguns to open locks, an Associated Press reporter at the scene said.
The commotion woke up the neighborhood, and some men and boys ran to get keys for some of the shops.
At one house, where they used explosives to blow open a double door, Marines tried to warn an elderly man to go inside his home before the blast. They used sign language, putting their hands over their ears and saying, "Boom." The man did not understand until his young daughter came out and pulled him inside.
The troops later napped at a telephone company office to beat the searing heat, which soared to 122 degrees. Marines took sodas from shop refrigerators. A Marine drank tea in one house and another Marine of Pakistani descent who knows some Arabic inquired about CDs at a music store.
"It's going a lot smoother than I expected," said U.S. Navy hospital corpsman Marcus Arnold of Odessa, Texas. "They're friendlier than I thought they would be. I'm getting used to the heat. Each day you get more and more used to it. It's just another obstacle."
Separately, more than 1,000 suspected insurgents captured in Operation Lightning — ongoing raids in and around Baghdad — will face criminal trials in the coming days, police Col. Adnan Adul Rahman said without elaborating.
Coalition forces detained and later released the head of the Zubaa tribe, Sheik Daher Khamis al-Dhari, on Wednesday in a raid west of Baghdad, the U.S. military said. He was released after several hours at the request of Iraq's vice president and after the Association of Muslim Scholars issued a statement condemning his detention.
Al-Samarie's announcement about the new political front marked the most serious effort to date to draw disenfranchised Sunnis into the political process. It followed confirmation from American officials, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, that the United States had negotiated with some insurgents.
The new political front is representing "resistance" fighters who have not targeted civilians, al-Samarie said. Nearly all car bomb and homicide attacks targeting Iraqis are believed to be the work of Islamic extremist groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq.
On Thursday, a joint statement allegedly issued by three militant groups on an Islamic Web site said fighters would target al-Samarie.
"We announce that it's allowed to spill the blood of Ayham al-Samarie. We have been too patient with his lies and we used to just deny them and provide the facts. But this isn't working anymore," the statement said, adding that it was issued by the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, the Islamic Amy in Iraq and the Army of Mujahedeen.
Its authenticity could not be verified.
The insurgents al-Samarie claims to represent want U.S. troops to leave Iraq within three years and military campaigns against Iraqi cities and towns to end, al-Samarie said. They will not put down their arms unless all their goals are met, he added.
A British newspaper this week reported that al-Samarie brokered two recent meetings between U.S. officials and a group of rebels. Al-Samarie confirmed the talks but would not elaborate.
Al-Samarie was electricity minister in the interim government and comes from Samarra, an insurgent stronghold 60 miles north of Baghdad.
Knight Ridder Newspapers, meanwhile, identified one of its Iraqi correspondents who was shot and killed in Baghdad on June 24 as Yasser Salihee. The report said Salihee, 30, appeared to have been killed by a U.S. military sniper, although there were Iraqi soldiers in the area at the time.
Salihee had the day off and was driving near his home, approaching a joint patrol of American and Iraqi troops, when a single bullet pierced his windshield and struck him in the head, Knight Ridder said.
The military is investigating. U.S. and Iraqi soldiers often are targeted by homicide car bombers. According to the Knight Ridder report, Salihee had written about the dangers of men driving alone in Iraq and how they often are suspected of being homicide bombers.
A former doctor at Baghdad's Yarmouk Hospital, Salihee worked for Knight Ridder since early 2004, although he often volunteered at medical clinics on his days off, the news organization said.