Iraqi and U.S. troops fanned out in a Sunni neighborhood devastated by days of internal fighting between insurgent groups, claiming control of the chaotic area on Friday and putting it under a strict curfew and forcing residents indoors.
Abu Ahmed, a 40-year-old Sunni father of four in Baghdad's Amariyah neighborhood, said he was among a group of residents who joined in the clashes with al-Qaida fighters on Wednesday and Thursday — fed up with the gunfire that kept students from final exams and forced people in the neighborhood to huddle indoors.
Ahmed denied being a member of any insurgent groups but said he sympathizes with "honest Iraqi resistance," referring to those opposed to U.S.-led efforts in Iraq but also against the brutal tactics of al-Qaida.
"Al-Qaida fighters and leaders have completely destroyed Amariyah. No one can venture out and all the businesses are closed," he said. "Those fighters are here only to kill Iraqis and not the Americans. They are like cancer and must be removed from the Iraqi body."
Other residents, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution, said the clashes began after al-Qaida abducted and tortured Sunnis from the area, prompting a large number of residents, many members of the rival Islamic Army armed with guns and rocket-propelled grenades, to rise up against the terror network.
Official casualty figures were not immediately available. But a local council member, who declined to be identified because of security concerns, said at least 31 people, including six al-Qaida militants, were killed and 45 other fighters were detained in the clashes.
U.S. and Iraqi officials are trying to isolate the terror network by turning other militant groups and tribal leaders against it — a tactic that has proven relatively successful in Anbar, the western province once considered the heartland of the Sunni insurgency.
Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, said Thursday that U.S. military officers were talking with Iraqi militants — excluding al-Qaida — about cease-fires and other arrangements to try to stop the violence. He said he thinks 80 percent of Iraqis, including Sunni insurgents and Shiite militants, can reach reconciliation with each other, although most al-Qaida operatives will not.
Lt. Col. Dale C. Kuehl, commander of 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, who is responsible for the Amariyah area of the capital, confirmed the U.S. military's role in the fighting in the Sunni district. He said the battles raged Wednesday and Thursday but died off at night.
"Government security forces are now in control of the Amariyah district," Iraqi military spokesman Qassim al-Moussawi was quoted as saying by Iraqi state TV. He also lauded "the cooperation of local residents with the government."
Saif M. Fakhry, an Associated Press Television News cameraman, was shot twice and killed in the turmoil in Amariyah on Thursday. Fakhry, 26, was the fifth AP employee to die violently in the Iraq war and the third killed since December.
He was spending the day with his wife, Samah Abbas, who is expecting their first child in June. According to his family, Fakhry was walking to a mosque near his Amariyah home when he was killed. It was not clear who fired the shots.
In Baqouba, northeast of Baghdad, an al-Qaida-linked suicide bomber blew himself up Friday in a house sheltering members of the rival 1920 Revolution Brigades, killing two of the other militants and wounding four in the strife-ridden city of Baqouba, police said.
Separately, the U.S. army chief of staff, speaking in Germany, said American troops, who have had their deployments in Iraq extended to 15 months from 12 months, are coming home to train specifically for their next mission, instead of more general preparations for combat.
"The fact that we are focusing on mission-specific training, and not able to conduct a lot of full-spectrum training — the training for operations across the spectrum of the conflict — is a limiting factor," said U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey Jr.
"It will be a while before we get back to that," Casey said during a visit to the Joint Multinational Training Command in Grafenwoehr, where U.S. units bound for Iraq perform final exercises before deploying.
Meanwhile, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of Iraq's largest Shiite party, returned to Baghdad from Iran after completing the first phase of his treatment for lung cancer, according to the Web site of the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq.
Al-Hakim is a key player in Iraqi politics and, despite close ties to Iran, has been a major partner in U.S. efforts to build a democratic system after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003. Al-Hakim heads parliament's largest bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, whose members dominate Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.