February 19, 2008 in Nation/World

Rockets strike near Iraq airport

Kim Gamel Associated Press
 

BAGHDAD – Rockets slammed into an Iraqi housing complex near the Baghdad international airport and a nearby U.S. military base on Monday, killing at least five people and wounding 16, including two U.S. soldiers, officials said.

American troops acting on strong evidence arrested six Iraqi suspects in the vicinity of the apparent launching sites, a military official said.

The brazen attack followed a weekend in which U.S. and Iraqi officials touted the security gains of a year-old operation in Baghdad that included an influx of some 30,000 extra American troops. Rocket and mortar attacks were once a daily occurrence but have tapered off with a general decline in violence in the capital.

Twelve 107 mm rockets fell in and around the airport and the nearby Camp Victory, the main U.S. military base on the western outskirts of Baghdad, the U.S. military official said, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of the official release of the information.

He said Camp Victory was hit and two soldiers suffered light injuries but that most of the casualties were in a housing complex for airport employees, about half a mile from the airport. Camp Victory, on the western outskirts of Baghdad, is the site of the main U.S. military headquarters.

Five Iraqis were killed and 14 wounded, including five children, one baby, one adult and a teenager who were taken to a nearby U.S. medical facility, the official said.

Iraqi police earlier reported that six to 13 rockets also struck the U.S.-protected Green Zone on Monday afternoon, but the U.S. military official denied that report.

In other violence, a roadside bombing in the northwestern city of Mosul killed three civilians and wounded four others, police said. The U.S. military has described Mosul as the last major urban stronghold of al-Qaida in Iraq.

Iraqi officials spent the weekend celebrating the successes of a crackdown that began a year ago and saw the eventual buildup of some 30,000 extra American troops. But the U.S. military has been more cautious, warning that Shiite and Sunni extremists remain a serious threat.

Earlier Monday, U.S. troops acting on a tip captured a Shiite militia leader suspected of being a powerful criminal boss and providing Iranian weapons to fighters in western Baghdad, the military said.

The arrest occurred a day after a U.S. military spokesman said that in the past week, Iraqi and U.S. forces had captured 212 weapons caches around the country, with growing evidence of an Iranian link.

“This is a significant capture of a top special groups leader,” said Navy Capt. Vic Beck, a military spokesman. “Special groups” is a term the U.S. uses to describe Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim militias that it says have broken with anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and refuse to follow his cease-fire order, which expires at the end of this month.

The detained man was reportedly in charge of all Shiite militia fighters in the western half of Baghdad. He was allegedly responsible for providing weapons to militia members, including armor-piercing bombs that U.S. officials say come from Iran. Tehran denies the allegation.

The suspect also allegedly selected fighters for paramilitary training and was an associate of other senior criminal leaders involved in attacks on U.S. and Iraqi security forces, the military said.

Separately, the leader of a U.S.-allied Sunni Arab group said his fighters were returning to posts they abandoned Saturday in protest over what he said was a U.S. airstrike the previous day that killed three of the group’s members in the village of Jurf al-Sakr, south of Baghdad.

It was the latest claim of a mistaken killing of civilians or U.S.-allied fighters by American forces. The cases have raised concern about future cracks in Sunni cooperation with U.S. forces, which the Pentagon credits as key to the sharp drop in violence in recent months throughout Iraq.

Sheik Sabah al-Janabi, the chief of the local Awakening Council, as the groups are known, ordered a three-day walkout, demanded that the U.S. military apologize, provide compensation for relatives of the victims and promise it won’t happen again. He reversed that decision Monday.

“Our fighters have resumed their patrolling and their checkpoint duties as of today after the Americans responded to our demands,” he said without elaborating.

Col. Tom James, commander of the 4th Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, which is responsible for the area, acknowledged U.S. forces killed two members of the Awakening Council and a third man but said they were acting in self-defense after coming under small-arms fire during an operation targeting an extremist.

He said American troops take great care to pinpoint Awakening Council checkpoints so they can avoid targeting them during operations, but claimed the killed men had left their posts and were mistaken for insurgents.

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