18 Killed by Sectarian Violence in Iraq, Maliki Opposes Splitting Country Into Regions

Three Iraqi soldiers and three civilians, killed in a homicide truck bombing near Mosul, were among 18 victims of sectarian violence across Iraq Saturday, even as the country's leaders denounced a U.S. Senate proposal to split the country into ethnic or religious-based regions.

Six people were killed and 17 wounded after a bomber in a pickup truck detonated his explosives as Iraqi forces chased the speeding vehicle near Mosul, an army officer said.

Acting on a tip, a team of Iraqi soldiers tried to intercept the homicide driver as he was heading west from Mazra village toward Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad. As the Iraqi Humvee neared the truck, the driver detonated his explosive payload, according to the officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

Also Saturday, drive-by gunmen killed a Sunni sheik near his home in Mosul's Mithaq neighborhood, said police spokesman Abdul Karim al-Jbouri. Sheik Ghanim Qassim was a mosque preacher and member of Mosul's edict commission, a religious rule-making body.

Al-Jbouri also said a 50-year-old journalist visiting his brother in the Bab al-Baidh neighborhood in central Mosul was killed about 9:30 a.m. when he was caught in a mortar attack. Abdul-Khaliq Nasir, who worked for Um al-Rabyain, a local newspaper, until it ceased operations about six months ago because of security concerns, was married and had three children.

In central Baghdad, gunmen opened fire at an Iraqi checkpoint, killing one civilian and wounding four others, police said.

Late Friday, the U.S. military handed over nine decomposing bodies to a hospital in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, according to a police official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

The young men were insurgents killed by U.S. forces, he said, adding that U.S. military officials told the hospital to expect at least 15 more bodies in the coming days.

The U.S. military did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Earlier Friday, Iraq's prime minister told The Associated Press that a U.S. Senate proposal to split the country into regions according to religious or ethnic divisions would be a "catastrophe."

The Kurds in three northern Iraqi provinces are running a virtually independent country within Iraq, while nominally maintaining relations with Baghdad. They support a formal division. But both Sunni and Shiite Muslims have reacted with extreme opposition to the U.S. Senate proposal.

The majority Shiites, who would retain control of major oil revenues under a division of the country, oppose the measure because it would diminish the territorial integrity of Iraq, which they now control. Sunnis would control an area with few if any oil resources. Kurds have major oil reserves in their territory.

The nonbinding Senate resolution calls for Iraq to be divided into federal regions under control of the three communities in a power-sharing agreement similar to the one that ended the 1990s war in Bosnia. Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Joseph Biden was a prime sponsor of the measure.

"It is an Iraqi affair dealing with Iraqis," Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told the AP Friday on a return flight to Baghdad from New York, where he appeared at the U.N. General Assembly. "Iraqis are eager for Iraq's unity. ... Dividing Iraq is a problem, and a decision like that would be a catastrophe."

The comments were al-Maliki's first since the measure passed the Senate on Wednesday.

Iraq's constitution lays down a federal system, allowing Shiites in the south, Kurds in the north and Sunnis in the center and west of the country to set up regions with considerable autonomous powers.

Nevertheless, ethnic and sectarian turmoil have snarled hopes of negotiating such measures, especially given deep divisions on sharing the country's vast oil resources. Oil reserves and existing fields would fall mainly into the hands of Kurds and Shiites if such a division were to occur.

So far there has been no agreement on a broader sharing of those revenues, one of the several U.S.-mandated benchmarks the government has failed to push through parliament.