Iraq: Al-Qaida group threatens Sunnis

Updated: 2007-09-15 17:37

BAGHDAD - An al-Qaida front group warns it will hunt down and kill Sunni Arab tribal leaders who cooperate with the US and its Iraqi partners in the wake of the assassination of the leader of the revolt against the terror movement.

Mourners pray near the coffins of Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, a Sunni Arab tribal leader and his two bodyguards, who were killed by a roadside bomb attack on Thursday, during a funeral in Ramadi, 100 km (60 miles) west of Baghdad, on September 14, 2007. [Reuters]

In a separate statement, the Islamic State of Iraq announced a new offensive during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting that began this week. The statement said the offensive was in honor of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaida in Iraq who was killed by a US airstrike in June 2006.

The statements were posted Friday and Saturday on Islamist Web sites, and among other things claimed responsibility for the assassination of Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, who spearheaded the uprising against al-Qaida in Anbar province west of the capital.

In claiming responsibility for Abu Risha's death Thursday, the Islamic State said it had formed "special security committees" to track down and "assassinate the tribal figures, the traitors, who stained the reputations of the real tribes by submitting to the soldiers of the Crusade" and the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

"We will publish lists of names of the tribal figures to scandalize them in front of our blessed tribes," the statement added.

In a second statement posted Saturday, the purported head of the Islamic State, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, said he was "honored to announce" the new offensive in memory of the "martyr Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in the beginning of Ramadan," which started for Iraqi Sunnis on Thursday and for Shiites the following day.

"Today we are on the door steps of a new era ... Today we witness the fallacy of the Western civilization and the renaissance of the Islamic giant," al-Baghdadi said in a half hour audio file.

US officials hope Abu Risha's death will not reverse the tide against al-Qaida, which began last year when he organized Sunni clans to fight the terror movement, producing a dramatic turnaround in Ramadi and other parts of Anbar province.

The revolt has spread to Sunni insurgent groups in Baghdad, Diyala province and elsewhere. Some insurgents who were ambushing US troops a few months ago are now working alongside the Americans to rid their communities of al-Qaida.

Abu Risha's brother Ahmed was elected head of the Anbar Awakening movement soon after the Thursday bombing at the family's heavily guarded compound on the outskirts of Ramadi.

Iraqi officials said the roadside bomb was just outside Abu Risha's walled compound in view of a guard shack and an Iraqi police checkpoint.

Abu Risha's assassination cast a cloud over President Bush's claims of progress in Iraq, especially in Anbar, which had been the center of the Sunni insurgency until the dramatic turnaround by the local sheiks. Bush met with Abu Risha during a visit to Anbar on Sept. 3.

In a televised address Thursday, Bush ordered gradual reductions in US forces in Iraq but rejected calls to end the war. More than 130,000 US troops will remain after the withdrawals are completed in July.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Friday raised the possibility of cutting US troop levels to 100,000 or so by the end of 2008, if conditions on the ground improve enough.

In Saturday's violence, an Iraqi soldier was killed when unidentified gunmen attacked a checkpoint in Baqouba, capital of Diyala province, Iraqi army said. The city had been a stronghold of the Islamic State until US soldiers overran it in July.

A joint Iraqi-US force traded gunfire Saturday with a purported al-Qaida operative near the Diyala town of Muqdadiyah, killing him and arresting his son, provincial police said. Elsewhere in Diyala, police found a charred car with two unidentified bodies inside in the town of Khalis.

To the south, American soldiers conducted house-to-house searches Saturday in the mostly Shiite city of Diwaniyah, killing one person and arresting two others, Iraqi police said. The neighborhood is controlled by Shiite militiamen.

A roadside bomb exploded Saturday in Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad, injuring five Iraqi soldiers and damaging one Humvee, the Iraqi army said. Two civilians were injured in a bombing near a police patrol in Mahaweel, 35 miles south of Baghdad, police said.

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