BAGHDAD, Iraq (AFP) -Iraq said on Wednesday it is extending the military crackdown in Baghdad to other flashpoint regions where insurgent and sectarian violence has killed hundreds in the past two weeks.
In the latest example of a spike in unrest away from the troop build-up in the Iraqi capital, gunmen dressed in police uniforms kidnapped 22 shepherds from the desert near the central Shiite shrine city of Karbala on Wednesday.
Iraqi and US officials announced that Operation Fardh al-Qanoon (Imposing Law) has already been underway in the restive northern city of Mosul since Tuesday and will also focus more on the outskirts of Baghdad.
“The efforts are now extending beyond Baghdad to provide peace and security to other provinces,” Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told reporters.
Hundreds have died in massive bombings outside Baghdad although the capital has also continued to face its daily share of car bombings.
On March 27, in the town of Tal Afar near Mosul, a suicide bomber blew up his truck full of flour and explosives amid a crowd of largely Iraqi Shiites waiting for food supplies, killing at least 107 people and wounding nearly 200.
The bombing was followed by revenge killings as a group of policemen went on a rampage, dragging Sunni Arabs out of their homes and killing them in the streets in the worst bout of sectarian bloodshed in recent months.
Tal Afar mayor Najim Abdallah said 56 Sunnis were massacred.
Brutal bomb attacks and sectarian killings have ripped through Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, considered the second most dangerous region after the capital itself.
On Wednesday, gunmen seized 22 shepherds and their sheep north of Karbala in the latest mass abduction of Shiite workers by presumed Sunni insurgents.
Travelling in three cars, the kidnappers swooped on the shepherds in an isolated desert area and took their truck, herd and weapons, said Karbala police spokesman Rahman Mushawi.
The victims were forced into vehicles and driven towards the neighbouring Sunni province of Al-Anbar, a hotbed of Al-Qaeda and Sunni insurgents opposed to the Shiite-led government and its US backers.
Witness Mohammed Abdul Kadhon, a brother of one of the hostages, told police the shepherds were being taken to Ameriyat al-Fallujah, a town where Al-Qaeda fighters have clashed with Sunni tribes opposed to their fundamentalism.
“This is an organised terrorist act that has no link to police of Karbala. We have warned them (shepherds) not to cooperate with police who do not have badges,” Mushawi said.
Criminal, sectarian and politically motivated abductions are rife in Iraq’s chilling sectarian conflict, in which untold numbers of Iraqis are never seen again and the bodies of many kidnap victims are never found.
Further north, gunmen on Wednedsay ambushed and killed six Sunni Arab workers from a power plant as they came off night shift and were travelling home south of the contested oil city of Kirkuk, their boss Jameel Abdallah said.
Insurgent attacks have been on the increase in Kirkuk, which sits on a third of Iraq’s oil resources and is home to a fractious ethnic and sectarian mix.
US military spokesman Major General William Caldwell said the additional troops being brought to Iraq have the “flexibility” to be deployed anywhere in the country.
About 30,000 extra troops are currently being deployed in Iraq as part of US President George W. Bush’s last-ditch strategy to curb violence.
But Caldwell emphasised the Baghdad crackdown will continue, with sectarian killings there down by 27 percent in March compared to February.
“The high-profile car bombs continue to be a concern,” he said, adding that there was no significant decline in the “overall number of casualties.”
Dabbagh said that owing to progress being made, the authorities also decided to ease the daily curfew in Baghdad by three hours from 10:00 pm and 5:00 am (1800 GMT to 0100 GMT).
“Security is improving and we now also plan to lift concrete barriers in some areas to facilitate movement of people,” he said.
Some districts of Baghdad, long the epicentre of violence in Iraq, are completely surrounded by high concrete walls that act as barriers to prevent car bombings and also restrict movement of militias.
On Wednesday, only two people were reported killed in Baghdad.
In a related development the US Army is investigating the deaths of two US soldiers in Iraq who may have died from “friendly fire,” the Defense Department said Wednesday.
The deaths of Alan McPeek, 20, and Matthew Zeimer, 18, were announced by the Pentagon on February 5. At the time it said the two had died on February 2 in Ramadi of injuries they sustained from enemy gunfire.
The Army has announced a unit-level investigation into the circumstances of the soldiers’ deaths and “friendly fire is suspected,” the Pentagon said in a statement.
More than 3,250 US soldiers have died in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion.