BAGHDAD – Suspected Al Qaeda fighters stormed two villages near Baqouba on Thursday, bombed the house of a local Sunni sheik and kidnapped a group of mostly women. Residents were finally able to drive off the attackers and end the deadly rampage.
Seventeen villagers, including seven women, were killed in the assaults roughly 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. Ten Al Qaeda gunmen also died.
The twin attacks near the Diyala provincial capital -- the focus of recent major U.S.-Iraqi military operations against alleged Al Qaeda fighters and Shiite militiamen -- hit a Shiite village and a Sunni village with the same ferocity but apparently different motives.
Al Qaeda in Iraq has been forced to fight a rearguard action against many of its former allies in the Sunni community who have risen up against the terrorist organization because of its brutality and attempts to impose the group's austere version of Islam. Shiite communities remain Al Qaeda targets out of sectarian animosity.
The attack on the Sunni village, Ibrahim al-Yahya, began when about 25 gunmen exploded a bomb at the house of Sheik Younis al-Shimari, destroying his home and killing him and one member of his family. Ten people were wounded, including four other members of the family and passers-by. Some of the wounded were hit by gunfire.
"They were shouting 'Allah Akbar and a curse be upon the renegades,"' said Umm Ahmed, a woman who was wounded in the attack. She refused to give her full name fearing retribution. "This attack will cause the uprising against them to spread to other villages."
Seven people were kidnapped. Two of the abducted men were later found shot in the head on a road leading out of town. The rest of the captives were women, and their fate was unknown.
Al-Shimari and his village apparently came under attack after he called on the men there to rise up against Al Qaeda.
While the Sunni village was under attack, another band of alleged Al Qaeda fighters stormed Timim, the nearby Shiite village and an obvious sectarian target, according to Baqouba police Brig. Ali Dlaiyan, who reported both assaults and gave the casualty tolls. He said the villagers were able to fight off the attack in a 30-minute gunbattle.
It was unclear how many of the 17 residents who died were in each village.
A police vehicle rushing to the attack scene crashed and two policemen were killed, according to officials in the Diyala provincial police force who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
The Sunni uprising against Al Qaeda began spontaneously early this year in Anbar province, once a bastion of the Sunni insurgency in the west of Iraq, and has spread to Diyala province and some Baghdad neighborhoods. The U.S. military has encouraged disaffected Sunnis, many of them former insurgents, and has begun working side by side with the Sunni auxiliary units.
Kara Driggers, a Mideast analyst at the Terrorism Research Center, said Al Qaeda attacks on the leaders of opposing groups have prompted more Iraqis to turn against them.
"The Al Qaeda tactic of targeting leaders of anti-Al Qaeda movements is counterproductive in that Iraqi society's tribal leanings requires reprisal killings," she said. "The tribal loyalties of Iraqi civilians are ignited to increase anti-Al Qaeda sentiment among the population."
Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert at the Center for International and Strategic Studies, said the Sunni uprising against Al Qaeda was more important than military gains.
"If success comes, it will not be because the new strategy President Bush announced in January succeeded, or through the development of Iraqi security forces at the planned rate. It will come because of the new, spontaneous rise of local forces willing to attack and resist Al Qaeda, and because new levels of political conciliation and economic stability occur at a pace dictated more by Iraqi political dynamics than the result of U.S. pressure," Cordesman wrote in a report Wednesday.
"The key element for success remains political conciliation and so far the pace of Iraqi action lags far behind the minimal levels necessary to meet either Iraqi or U.S. expectations," Cordesman wrote.
In an indication of the complexities facing American forces in Iraq, where the police force has nearly been given up as a lost cause, U.S. troops arrested nine policemen two days ago on suspicion they were involved in a roadside bombing near a checkpoint they controlled in east Baghdad's Rasheed district, according to a military statement on Thursday.
Police in Iraq are under the Shiite-controlled Interior Ministry. Much of the force is believed to be infiltrated by Shiite militiamen, many of them operating as death squads to enforce sectarian cleansing of mixed Baghdad neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, a U.S. soldier was killed and four were wounded in combat operations west of the capital, the military reported Thursday. The attack occurred Wednesday. The death raised to at least 3,723 members of the U.S. military who have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
The U.S. general who commands troops in northern Iraq issued a statement of condolences for the 14 soldiers who were killed Wednesday when a Black Hawk helicopter crashed shortly after picking up a group of troopers who had just completed a night operation in Tamim province, home to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
The military said those killed included four air crew members based in Fort Lewis, Wash., and 10 passengers based at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii.
Also Thursday, Jordan's energy minister said his country expects to resume Iraqi oil imports in the coming days, ending a four-year hiatus sparked by the U.S.-led war that toppled Saddam Hussein, the official Petra news agency reported.
The Iraqis said the deal was in the works for a long time and awaited only the hiring of a security force to guard the trucks. Apparently until now they could find no one who would take the job.