BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – A bomb killed 26 people in a Shi’ite stronghold in east Baghdad on Saturday, hours after Sunni Muslims began the fasting month of Ramadan, which U.S. commanders have warned may see a ise in sectarian bloodshed.
The blast also wounded 29 people who had gathered around a fuel tanker distributing fuel for stoves in Sadr City, police sources said. It came hours after a regional leader of one of the most violent Sunni Islamist insurgent groups, Ansar al-Sunna, was captured, according to the Iraqi Defence Ministry.
Muntasir al-Jibouri was seized overnight along with two comrades in a village near Muqdadiya, 80 km (50 miles) northeast of Baghdad, Brigadier Qasim al-Moussawi told Reuters, describing him as the leader of the group in that province, Diyala, where Ansar al-Sunna and its al Qaeda allies have been very active.
Earlier, state television described Jibouri simply as “the leader” of the organisation. Moussawi, spokesman for the armed forces command, told Reuters he was not aware of what role, if any, Jibouri had in the national leadership of the group.
Allied with al Qaeda, Ansar al-Sunna came to prominence in 2004 with video of its militants beheading foreign hostages and later claiming a suicide attack on a U.S. military mess hall that killed 19 Americans shortly before Christmas that year.
Police sources said Saturday’s blast, one of the deadliest in weeks, occurred when a car exploded as people gathered around a fuel tanker. It was not immediately clear whether the vehicle was parked or driven by a suicide attacker, they said.
An Interior Ministry official said it was also not certain that any other vehicle was involved and that the explosives may have simply been planted nearby.
U.S. and Iraqi troops have mounted a major security crackdown since last month in an effort to clamp down on violence that they warn risks destroying the four-month-old national unity government through all-out sectarian civil war.
Sadr City, slum stronghold of the movement of radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, had been spared much of the violence until recent months when Sunni accusations have grown that his Mehdi Army militia is among those behind thousands of “death squad” killings.
Many Sunnis, a majority in the Arab world but a disaffected minority in Iraq, began to observe the Ramadan fast on Saturday, a timing dependent on sightings of the moon. Clerics from Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim majority have yet to announce the start of the month but are likely to do so in the next day or two.
A source in the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leading Shi’ite cleric in Iraq, said it expected to announce late on Sunday that Ramadan would start on Monday.
U.S. commanders have said that, as in the past three years, they anticipate an increase in violence during Ramadan, when Muslims fast during daylight and spend more time in prayer.
Defence Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said Jibouri was captured by Iraqi troops in Tayha village near Muqdadiya. He also announced the capture of an al Qaeda militant in the northern town of Sherqat, along with two Saudi nationals.
U.S. forces killed al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Diyala in June and Iraqi and U.S. officials have announced the arrests of other militants there since then.
Ansar al-Sunna emerged out of an Islamist movement called Ansar al-Islam, which was based in autonomous Kurdish northern Iraq during the Sunni-dominated secular rule of Saddam Hussein.
Apparent successes against Sunni militants who have attacked occupying U.S. forces and the Shi’ite-led government for the past three years, have come at a time when U.S. commanders warn of a growing risk of sectarian civil war involving Shi’ite and Sunni armed groups. Dozens of people die in Baghdad every day.
The U.S. commander of troops in the capital said on Friday that U.S.-trained Iraqi soldiers do not want to leave other parts of their country to serve in Baghdad, leaving security efforts in the capital short by 3,000 Iraqi troops.
“The government is trying to come to grips with the security needs,” Thurman said.”Baghdad’s security hinges on the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces,” Thurman added, arguing against putting more U.S. troops in Baghdad.