BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition forces clashed with gunmen northeast of Baghdad after armed Shiites attacked a convoy of Sunni villagers in retaliation for a suicide attack, officials said Friday.
The Sunnis were attacked Thursday as they were moving out of the religiously mixed village of Daliqiya after being threatened by Shiite residents accusing them of being behind a bicycle bombing in nearby Baqouba that killed at least 25 people Monday, police said.
Iraqi police tried to intervene, but snipers killed the head of the force, Col. Sami Abbas Hassan, and his two bodyguards. U.S. and Iraqi forces, backed by air support, then tried to restore calm, engaging in a fierce gunbattle that left three fighters dead and three wounded, the U.S. military said, adding that four suspects were detained.
"Coalition forces are currently conducting a thorough search of the village in an attempt to identify any other anti-Iraqi forces in the area," said military spokesman Sgt. Doug Anderson.
The fighting reflected a rise in sectarian violence in the Sunni-dominated Diyala province, which surrounds Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.
In nearby Muqdadiyah, a rocket-propelled grenade hit a Shiite mosque, and 30 minutes later, gunmen in black uniforms often worn by Shiite militias attacked a Sunni mosque, police said.
The U.S. military has staged several raids in the area since Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed there earlier this month. The military said Thursday it had gained an advantage in the fight against the terror network.
Usama bin Laden purportedly paid tribute to Zarqawi in a new audio message Friday, saying the slain Jordanian militant had been under orders to kill Iraqis who supported U.S. forces in the country. In the 19-minute message, bin Laden also demanded that President Bush hand over al-Zarqawi's body to his family and vowed more attacks against the United States.
It was the fourth audio message purportedly put out this year by bin Laden. The voice in the latest message — released on an Islamic Web forum where militants often post messages — resembled that on previous recordings attributed to bin Laden, but the authenticity of the tape could not be immediately confirmed.
Abdullah al-Dulaimi, a Sunni villager in Daliqiya, said Shiite militiamen started targeting Sunni homes with bombs and gunfire after the bicycle blast, prompting some families to flee.
"I decided to stay," he said. "I chose to defend my properties."
Only a few police patrols remained in the village Friday, he said.
"The situation is still tense. We want to live peacefully with our Shiite brothers as we used to live since very long years ago," he said.
Elsewhere, a Marine was killed Friday in fighting in the volatile Anbar province west of Baghdad, while a U.S. soldier died the day before in small arms fire in the northern city of Mosul, the military said.
The deaths raised to at least 2,531 members of the U.S. military who have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
It was a relatively calm day in the capital of 6 million people as Iraqi authorities reimposed a four-hour driving ban to coincide with Friday prayers, although a parked car bomb in northern Baghdad wounded one person and a mortar barrage against a police station in the south wounded another.
Police also found three bodies that had been bound and shot in different areas of the capital.
The driving ban — aimed at preventing suicide car bombs that have in the past targeted mosques during the main Islamic weekly religious services — has been imposed weekly since Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched a security operation in Baghdad.
Also Friday, nearly 20 trucks carrying heavy equipment left the Japanese base in Samawah, about 230 miles southeast of Baghdad, for Kuwait as Tokyo continued its phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq.
Japan's Defense Agency said civilian contractors were removing some supplies, but a date had not been set for the departure of personnel. The 600 Japanese troops were sent to Iraq in 2004 on a humanitarian, non-combat mission.