BAGHDAD (AP) – A top Iraqi insurgent leader claimed in an audiotape posted online Tuesday that his al-Qaeda-linked group had begun manufacturing its own rockets.
The voice was said to be that of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, head of the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group that includes al-Qaeda in Iraq. The tape was posted on an Islamic Web site frequently used by militant groups, but its authenticity could not be independently verified.
The rockets, called al-Quds-1, or Jerusalem-1, “have moved into the phase of military production with an advanced degree of range and accuracy,” al-Baghdadi said, without elaborating.
Insurgents in Iraq have used a range of Soviet-era rockets like Katyushas, and shoulder-fired ground-to-air Sam-7 missiles, most of which were looted from Saddam Hussein’s massive depots in the lawless days and weeks that followed the collapse of his regime. Recently, the U.S. has accused Iran of funneling Iranian-made weapons to insurgents in Iraq, mostly to Shiite militias but to some Sunnis as well.
Separately, al-Baghdadi’s group posted a Web statement Tuesday saying its religious court issued a verdict to execute 20 kidnapped Iraqi soldiers. On Saturday, the group claimed to have captured the troops to avenge the alleged rape of a woman by Iraqi police, and demanded the government hand over the rapists within 48 hours. But there were no reports of any Iraqi officers missing, and an Interior Ministry official said Tuesday that all troops were accounted for.
The militant statement said photos of the slayings would be posted online soon.
Also Tuesday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said his government is holding talks with some insurgent groups, including members of Saddam Hussein’s former regime, as part of a reconciliation plan to stop violence.
Al-Maliki did not name the groups which his government is in contact with, but said that when an Iraq conference is held in Egypt early next month, “We will have good chances for reconciliation.” Iraq’s neighbors and other countries are scheduled to hold a meeting on May 3-4 in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik. “We are having meetings with groups that are not part of the political process… They asked us not to reveal their names,” al-Maliki told reporters at his office in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.
Meanwhile, hundreds of residents of Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, crowded into a huge tent erected Tuesday in front of the governor’s office for the start of a three-day sit-in to demand the official’s resignation. “This governor is a hypocrite. We want him to come out!” the angry mob shouted. “We demand the Basra governor resign,” read a banner hung from the tent. Gov. Mohammed al-Waili was not believed to be in the building at the time.
The peaceful sit-in came a day after thousands of people paraded from a downtown mosque to al-Waili’s office in a demonstration that defied orders from Baghdad officials. Residents of Basra, 550 kilometers (340 miles) southeast of Baghdad, have long complained of poor city services, garbage pickup, water and electricity. But demands for al-Waili’s ouster were thought to be political as well. He is a member of a rival Shiite faction to that of Muqtada al-Sadr, the rebellious but extremely popular cleric that commands tremendous influence over Iraq’s majority Shiites.
On Monday, al-Sadr’s six ministers quit the Iraqi Cabinet to protest al-Maliki’s refusal to back calls for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. The move severed al-Sadr’s ties to the U.S.-backed prime minister and raised fears his Mahdi Army militia might again confront American troops.
The political drama was not likely to bring down al-Maliki’s government, but it highlighted growing demands among Iraqi politicians and voters that U.S. troops leave their country.
On Tuesday, a group of senior Sunni Muslim clerics visited Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in the holy city of Najaf and emerged from the meeting saying followers of the two sects are “brothers.”
“Everybody’s aim is to extinguish the fire of strife in our country. This is our call to everyone,” said Sheik Mohammed Talabani, head of the Clerics Association in Kurdistan.
Iraq’s Sunni mufti, Sheik Jamaluddin al-Dabban, said al-Sistani asked him to give his regards to all Sunni scholars in the country. “We call for unity,” al-Dabban said.
A third cleric from the Kurdish city of Irbil, Sheik Ali al-Khafaji, said “Our aim is Iraq’s unity. There is no difference between Sunnis and Shiites. They are all our brothers.”
Sunni clerics have frequently visited al-Sistani in the past. They also visited three other top Shiite clerics in Najaf on Tuesday.
The U.S. military on Tuesday announced the death of a Marine from a “non-hostile incident” while on combat patrol in Iraq’s western Anbar province. The incident occurred Monday and was under investigation.
The deputy chief of Mosul police was killed Tuesday in a drive-by shooting in the city’s southern Thwara neighborhood. Col. Abdul-Karim Mahmoud al-Bachari died after gunmen in two cars showered him with bullets, said police Brig. Mohammed al-Wagga. Two of al-Bachari’s guards were also killed, al-Wagga said.
Also in Mosul, a roadside bomb apparently targeting a U.S. patrol killed one civilian instead, al-Wagga said. Clashes were also reported near Sabreen mosque in eastern Mosul, but there was no immediate word on casualties.
The violence in Mosul, a mostly Sunni Muslim city 360 kilometers (225 miles) northwest of Baghdad, came a day after a university dean, a professor, a policeman’s son and 13 soldiers died near there in attacks that bore the marks of al-Qaeda.
Nationwide, at least 51 people were killed or found dead Monday. And the U.S. military reported the deaths of seven more American service members: three soldiers and two Marines on Monday and two soldiers on Saturday. The U.S. military issued a statement Tuesday that a dump truck had overturned north of Baghdad, revealing a payload
of nitric acid and explosives en route to attack a joint U.S.-Iraqi security station.
The botched attack occurred Monday in Mashahda, 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of the capital. After the truck tipped over, U.S. troops approached truck driver to help, and discovered the vehicle’s contents, the military said.
The military first said the containers were filled with nitric acid, a chemical used to make fertilizer and also bombs. But hours later, it issued a correction to the previous statement, saying the barrels were filled with gasoline.
“The containers were consistent with those normally used to transport nitric acid, but upon examination, they were found to be filled with gasoline,” the second statement said. “The driver of the vehicle told the soldiers that he was paid $30,000 to attack the JSS (Joint Security Station), which also houses the Mashahda Police Station,” the military said.
Separately, a top Iraqi military spokesman said 30 containers of nitric acid were found in a raid in Baghdad’s central Karradah district last Thursday. Brig. Qassim al-Moussawi said no one was arrested, and authorities were still investigating who owned the house where the chemical was found.
Eight suspected insurgents were captured early Tuesday in raids near Fallujah and Baghdad, the military said in another statement.
In other violence, a sniper killed two policemen in central Baqouba, said Ahmed Fouad of the city’s morgue. Another sniper killed a 70-year-old woman in Baghdad’s southern Dora neighborhood, police said.
The head of a Kurdish magazine was arrested Tuesday, allegedly over an article he wrote about Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who is a Kurd. Security officials detained Ahmed Mera on his way to work, another official from the magazine said.