BAGHDAD – Gunmen in Baghdad snatched 10 Sunni and Shiite tribal sheiks from their cars Sunday as they were heading home to Diyala province after talks with the government on fighting al-Qaida. At least one was later found shot to death.
The bold daylight kidnapping came as the top U.S. commander in Iraq said the threat from the terror network has been “significantly reduced” in the capital.
A suicide car bomber, meanwhile, struck a busy commercial area in the oil-rich, northern city of Kirkuk, killing at least eight people and wounding 26, police said.
A new general assumed control of the region north of Baghdad, acknowledging that violence remains high but expressing confidence that the military has al-Qaida on the run there as well.
The two cars carrying the sheiks – seven Sunnis and three Shiites – were ambushed in Baghdad’s predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Shaab at about 3:30 p.m., police officials said.
The sheiks were returning to Diyala province after attending a meeting with the Shiite-dominated government’s adviser for tribal affairs to discuss coordinating efforts against al-Qaida in Iraq, police and a relative said.
Police found the bullet-riddled body of one of the Sunni sheiks, Mishaan Hilan, about 50 yards away from where the ambush took place, an officer said, adding that the victim was identified after his cell phone was found on him.
A relative of one of the abducted Shiite sheiks blamed Sunni extremists and said the attackers picked a Shiite neighborhood to “create strife between Shiite and Sunni tribes that have united against al-Qaida in the area.”
But, Jassim Zeidan al-Anbaqi said, “this will not happen.”
The attack was the latest to target anti-al-Qaida tribal leaders and other officials in an apparent bid to intimidate them from joining the U.S.-sponsored grass-roots strategy that the military says has contributed to a recent drop in violence.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said Sunday that the threat from al-Qaida in several former strongholds in Baghdad has been “significantly reduced.”
He singled out success in what had been some of the most volatile Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad, including Ghazaliyah, Amariyah, Azamiyah and Dora.
“Having said that … al-Qaida remains a very dangerous and very lethal enemy of Iraq,” he said. “We must maintain contact with them and not allow them to establish sanctuaries or re-establish sanctuaries in places where they were before.”
Petraeus said the reduced threat from al-Qaida had given way to nonsectarian crimes – kidnapping, corruption in the oil industry and extortion.
“As the terrible extremist threat of al-Qaida has been reduced somewhat, there is in some Iraqi neighborhoods actually a focus on crime and on extortion that has been ongoing and kidnapping cells and what is almost a mafia-like presence in certain areas,” he said.
Petraeus made his comments after a ceremony as the 1st Armored Division, which is based in Wiesbaden, Germany, assumed command of northern Iraq from the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division at Camp Speicher, a U.S. base near Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad.
The new commander for the region, Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, said the number of attacks so far in October had dropped by more than 300 from last month, although he did not provide more specific figures.
“The levels are still high in some of the northern provinces,” he said. “But while they’re still high … they have been decreasing significantly.”
“We are in, I believe, a pursuit operation with al-Qaida,” he said, adding that attacks were more focused on local civilians and Iraqi security forces. “They are targeting the concerned local citizens, the police stations and some of the gathering places of sheiks … specifically to try and deter the Iraqi people from moving forward.”
In all, at least 35 people were killed or found dead across the nation, including the decomposing bodies of 12 Shiites found near the Diyala provincial capital of Baqouba, an army officer said.
A car also exploded near a market in Baghdad’s Shiite district of Kazimiyah, killing at least two civilians and wounding 10, according to local police
The suicide bombing in Kirkuk, 80 miles north of Baghdad, struck a mainly Kurdish area in the city, which has seen a rise in ethnic tensions as Iraq’s Kurds try to strengthen their presence there as a prelude to annexing it to their nearby self-rule region.
The city’s Arab and Turkomen residents dispute the Kurdish claim.
Several cars and nearby stores and restaurants were set on fire and black smoke rose from the area as panicked people ran over bloodstained sidewalks.
On a separate subject, Petraeus offered some personal reflection on the plight of Sultan Hashim al-Tai, a Saddam Hussein-era defense minister who faces the death penalty after his conviction for his role in the so-called Anfal campaign that killed tens of thousands of Kurds.
The executions of al-Tai, along with Saddam’s cousin “Chemical Ali” al-Majid and Hussein Rashid Mohammed – former deputy operations director for the Iraqi military – have been delayed as Iraqi politicians and legal experts wrangle over the refusal of President Jalal Talabani, himself a Kurd, to sign the order.
Al-Tai, a Sunni Arab from Mosul, negotiated the cease-fire that ended the 1991 Gulf War, when a U.S.-led coalition drove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. He surrendered to U.S. forces in September 2003 after weeks of negotiations. His defense lawyers claimed the Americans had promised al-Tai “protection and good treatment” before he turned himself in.
Petraeus, who was then commander of the 101st Airborne division that oversaw the surrender, denied reports that he had promised al-Tai immunity.
“We were very hot on his heels,” he said. “So we put the word out to his family through interlocutors that …… I would receive his surrender in an honorable manner and convey him to the central authorities and that’s basically what we did. And I did treat him honorably.”
Petraeus said they brought al-Tai’s family to visit him and he said he personally flew al-Tai in his helicopter to Mosul and spent about an hour with him as they waited for a C-130 transport plane to fly him to Baghdad.
“I actually visited him there one time. Another time we took his some family members and an imam to see him,” he recalled. “But the bottom line is that if the appropriate Iraqi process is followed then we will respect that process.”