Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Iraq wants US to cede control after raid

Iraq wants US to cede control after raid
By Omar al-Ibadi and Alastair Macdonald

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's ruling parties demanded U.S. forces cede control of security on Monday as the government launched an inquiry into a raid on a Shi'ite mosque complex that ministers said saw "cold blooded" killings by U.S.-led troops.

U.S. commanders rejected the charges and said their accusers faked evidence by moving bodies of gunmen killed fighting Iraqi troops in an office compound. It was not a mosque, they said.

As Shi'ite militiamen fulminated over Sunday's deaths of at least 16 people in Baghdad, an al Qaeda-led group said it staged one of the bloodiest Sunni insurgent attacks in months. A suicide bomber killed 40 Iraqi army recruits in northern Iraq.

The Iraqi Defense Ministry said a suicide bomber wearing an explosive belt also wounded 30 at a base near Mosul.

After 24 hours of limited communication, U.S. commanders mounted a media offensive to deny Shi'ite accounts of a mosque massacre and portray instead a bold and disciplined operation by U.S.-trained Iraqi special forces that killed 16 fighters and freed a hapless Iraqi hostage being held to ransom for $20,000.

Three gunmen were wounded and 18 people detained, he added.

"After the fact, someone went in and made the scene look different from what it was," Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli said of footage aired extensively on state television showing the bodies of apparently unarmed civilians in a mosque.

"There's been huge misinformation," he said. He insisted he did not know the religious affiliation of the group targeted, although the raid was the fruit of lengthy intelligence work.

He did not spell out his criticism of the Shi'ite political groups who made the massacre accusations. Confrontation between the Iranian-linked Shi'ite leaders and U.S. forces comes at a sensitive time when Washington is pressing them to forge a unity government with minority Sunnis to avert civil war.


Iraq's security minister accused U.S. and Iraqi forces of killing 37 unarmed civilians in the mosque after tying them up.

Residents and police, who put the death toll among the troops' opponents at around 20, spoke of a fierce battle between the soldiers and gunmen from the Mehdi Army militia of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose followers ran the mosque.

Though Chiarelli stressed his forces did not view the site targeted as a mosque, neighbors and clerics insisted it was. It was not, however, a typical religious building but a compound of former Baath party offices converted by Sadr followers.

Despite confusions, one thing was certain: Shi'ite leaders are up in arms against the U.S. forces who brought them to power by ousting Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated Baathist regime.

"The Alliance calls for a rapid restoration of (control of) security matters to the Iraqi government," Jawad al-Maliki, a senior spokesman of the Shi'ite Islamist Alliance and ally of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, told a news conference.

The United States handed over formal sovereignty in 2004 but 133,000 troops in the country give it the main say in security.

Baghdad provincial governor Hussein al-Tahan said he would halt all cooperation with U.S. forces.

Aides to Sadr denied any Mehdi Army fighters were present.

But witnesses spoke of a lengthy gun battle: "The shooting lasted for more than an hour," shopkeeper Ali Abdul Jabbar said.


The fiery young cleric's militia was ordered to disband after U.S. forces crushed uprisings in 2004. But it remains a force in southern Iraq and eastern Baghdad, and is accused by U.S. officials of some of the violence that killed hundreds of Sunnis after last month's bombing of a Shi'ite shrine.

Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, at the center of urgent U.S. efforts to stem violence by creating a unity government, has said in recent days that the militias must be brought to heel and accused Iran of funding and training some armed groups. He said militias are now killing more Iraqis than the insurgents.

Khalilzad plans ground-breaking talks with Iran to try to break the deadlock over the formation of a unity government.

Iranian backing seems to have been critical in pushing Sadr to kingmaker status within the Alliance and to securing the nomination of Dawa party leader Jaafari to a second term. Sunni and Kurdish opposition to Jaafari is blocking a government deal.

Alliance leaders stayed away from the daily round of talks on the government, saying the mosque incident kept them busy.

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, who has been hosting the negotiations said: "We have to know the truth about what happened, and we must not be driven by rumours. This is a very dangerous incident which we must investigate."

(Additional reporting by Michael Georgy, Mariam Karouny, Terry Friel, Hiba Moussa and Aseel Kami)