BAGHDAD, Iraq – American troops detained a top Sunni religious leader for a few hours after a raid seeking terror suspects Saturday, while a bomb killed two U.S. soldiers patrolling south of Baghdad during a mammoth military operation trying to secure the capital region.
The slayings, along with the announcement of the deaths of two U.S. soldiers Friday, raised the week's toll to 16 Americans killed and underscored the dangers of the security campaign in Baghdad.
The arrest of Sheik Jamal al-Din Abdul Karim al-Dabban drew sharp protests from Sunni Arabs and was an embarrassment for Iraq's Shiite prime minister on the eve of his presentation of a reconciliation plan aimed at drawing the disaffected Sunni minority into the political process.
The influential Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars said al-Dabban was arrested with three of his sons at about 5 a.m. in Tikrit, hometown of former leader Saddam Hussein. The cleric was released about seven hours later after protests, Tikrit Gov. Hamad Humoud al-Qaisi said.
The U.S. military said it detained five people during a raid in the Tikrit area, 80 miles north of Baghdad, and later realized one was a senior religious leader, who was released.
"The security forces did not know it was a senior sheik's house when they conducted the assault," the statement said.
The military said the raid was based on intelligence that arose from the June 7 killing of Al Qaeda in Iraq's leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It said one of the suspects "was directly associated with several senior-level Al Qaeda members and reportedly plays an important role in the network between Baqouba and Tikrit."
Hundreds of people responded to calls broadcast over mosque loudspeakers to gather in front of the Tikrit governor's office to protest the detention, said Sheik Yahya Ibrahim al-Atwani, deputy head of the local chapter of the scholars' association.
The Iraqi Islamic party, the largest Sunni political group, condemned the arrest and warned it could provoke the Sunni-dominated insurgency. "The sheik represents an Islamic and national symbol and these violations could cause the security situation to deteriorate," it said.
Since losing the dominance they enjoyed until the ouster of Saddam Hussein, Sunni Arabs have been the driving force behind the insurgency, and Iraqi and American leaders are trying to draw them into politics in hopes of weakening support for the uprising.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is to present a 28-point national reconciliation plan to parliament Sunday setting out steps for preparing Iraqi forces to take control of Iraq's security and outlining an amnesty program for insurgents not involved in major bloodshed, a key politician said.
The proposal also promises to review the country's new constitution to address Sunni Arab demands and try to find a way to disband militias blamed for worsening sectarian bloodshed, according to a draft of the plan obtained earlier this week by The Associated Press and a description of the latest version by Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman.
Shortly after taking office May 20, al-Maliki vowed to take over security issues from American and other foreign troops in all of Iraq's 18 provinces within 18 months.
That fits with the U.S.-led coalition's strategy to hand over security in certain regions while withdrawing to regional bases to stand ready in case of emergency. A final stage would involve the gradual pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq. No specific timeline has been given for that plan.
The U.S. military announced the deaths of four more American soldiers in the Multi-National Division in Baghdad, including two who were killed while patrolling on foot south of Baghdad on Saturday. The other two died Friday, one from a roadside bomb and one in a "non-combat incident" that was being investigated, a statement said.
The military did not give more details about the deaths, but U.S. forces have been increasingly visible in Baghdad recently as they fan out in support of tens of thousands of Iraqi troops trying to restore security in the capital.
Ten other U.S. soldiers were killed or found dead earlier this week, including two whose brutalized bodies were recovered Tuesday, four days after they went missing after an attack on a U.S. checkpoint in the so-called Sunni Triangle of Death south of Baghdad.
Baghdad was relatively calm a day after clashes broke out in the center of the city, forcing the prime minister to impose a curfew on the city of 6 million people, although sporadic violence was reported.
At least 11 people were killed in attacks nationwide. Among them were Maj. Gen. Mussa Hatam, the local chief of intelligence in the northern city of Kirkuk, and two of his guards, who were killed when a roadside bomb struck their car.