BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – At least 17 people were killed in clashes between al Qaeda gunmen and rival fighters near the ancient Iraqi city of Samarra, officials and villagers said on Saturday, as pressure grows on the Sunni Islamist group.
Gunbattles between al Qaeda and the Islamic Army, a Sunni Arab nationalist group, broke out late on Friday in the remote villages of al-Julam and Benat al-Hassan near Samarra, 100 km (60 miles) north of Baghdad, and ended early on Saturday. The villages were former al Qaeda strongholds, but residents, many of them Islamic Army fighters, combined to drive them out.
Signs of al Qaeda’s weakening support were highlighted by an audiotape, featuring Osama bin Laden and aired last month, in which bin Laden conceded wrongs had been committed in Iraq because of fanaticism in his group.
Bin Laden urged insurgent groups to unite under al Qaeda’s Iraq wing. The group has faced growing resistance because of its indiscriminate killings and the strict interpretation of Islam it seeks to impose.
A police source in Samarra said 17 al Qaeda fighters were killed, as well as 15 Islamic Army fighters and villagers. An Islamic Army source in one of the villages, who asked not to be identified, also said 17 al Qaeda fighters had been killed but denied any of his men had died.
Abdullah Jubarah, deputy governor of Salahuddin province, said he did not have precise casualty figures from the fighting. “We support the Islamic Army in this fighting. Anyone who fights al Qaeda, we support them,” Jubarah told Reuters. The Islamic Army source said 18 al Qaeda fighters, some of them wounded, had also been captured but would be released if al Qaeda left the area. “We are negotiating with al Qaeda, but on condition that they leave this area,” he told Reuters.
Police in Baghdad said they were aware of gunbattles in three villages near Samarra, naming al-Muatasim as the third. The Samarra police source said no Iraqi or U.S. security forces were involved in the gunbattles. The U.S. military had no immediate comment about the battle.
Sixteen militants were killed in similar clashes between al Qaeda and the Islamic Army near ancient Samarra last month.
Al Qaeda has faced growing pressure, and has been moving into other areas of Iraq, since Sunni Arab tribal sheikhs started forming neighbourhood police units last year to drive them out of western Anbar province, once the most dangerous areas of Iraq.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis have since signed up to similar “concerned citizens” neighbourhood groups across Iraq.
A U.S. build-up of 30,000 extra troops, which began in February and was completed in June, has also targeted al Qaeda and Shi’ite militias in Baghdad and other centres.
Major-General Joseph Fil, commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, said this week that al Qaeda no longer had a foothold in any part of the capital.
The extra troops are part of a U.S. military strategy aimed at quelling sectarian violence in which tens of thousands of Iraqis have died. The bloodshed erupted after a Shi’ite shrine in predominantly Sunni Arab Samarra was bombed in February 2006.
Also in northern Iraq, four people were killed when a roadside bomb exploded next to a bus in volatile Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, police said. Women and children were among 16 others wounded.
Another person was killed and 10 wounded by a roadside bomb in eastern Baghdad’s Baladiyat district, police said.