BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition forces clashed with gunmen northeast of Baghdad after armed Shiites attacked a convoy of Sunni villagers in retaliation for a suicide attack, officials said Friday.
The Sunnis were attacked Thursday as they were moving out of the religiously mixed village of Daliqiya after being threatened by Shiite residents accusing them of being behind a bicycle bombing in the area on Monday that killed at least 25 people, police said.
Iraqi police tried to intervene, but snipers killed the head of the force Col. Sami Abbas Hassan and his two bodyguards. The police withdrew while U.S. forces and Iraqi soldiers tried to restore the calm, according to police and a witness.
Clashes erupted after the coalition troops came under fire, policeman Falah Ahmed said.
The U.S. and Iraqi forces, backed by air support, were called in after Iraqi police came under fire from small arms and rocket-propelled grenades in the village near Baqouba, 60 kilometers (35 miles) northeast of Baghdad, the U.S. military said.
The coalition forces chased the “terrorists” into a house, engaging in a fierce gunbattle that left three fighters dead and three others wounded, the military said, adding that four other suspects were detained.
“Coalition forces are currently conducting a thorough search of the village in an attempt to identify any other anti-Iraqi forces in the area,” spokesman Sgt. Doug Anderson said in a statement e-mailed early Friday. The fighting reflected a rise in sectarian violence in the Sunni-dominated Diyala province, which surrounds Baqouba.
Tensions also were high Friday in nearby Muqdadiyah after a Shiite mosque was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and gunmen wearing black uniforms often worn by Shiite militias attacked a Sunni mosque 30 minutes later, police said.
The U.S. military has staged several raids in the area since al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed there earlier this month and said Thursday it has gained an advantage in the fight against the terror network.
Abdullah al-Dulaimi, a Sunni villager in Daliqiya said Shiite militiamen had started targeting houses belonging to members of the minority Muslim sect with shootings and bombs after the bicycle bombing, causing some other families to decide to leave. “I decided to stay,” he said. “I chose to defend my properties.”
Only a few police patrols remained in the village on Friday, he said.
“The situation is still tense. We want to live peacefully with our Shiite brothers as we used to live since very long years ago,” he said.
Elsewhere, a U.S. Marine was killed Friday in fighting in the volatile Anbar province west of Baghdad, while a soldier died the day before in small arms fire in the northern city of Mosul, the military said. The deaths raised to at least 2,531 members of the U.S. military who have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. It was a relatively calm day in the capital of 6 million people as Iraqi authorities reimposed a four-hour driving ban to coincide with Friday prayers, although a parked car bomb in northern Baghdad wounded one person and a mortar barrage against a police station in the south wounded another.
Police also found three bodies that had been bound and shot in different areas of the capital. The driving ban, aimed at preventing suicide car bombs that have in the past targeted mosques during the main Islamic weekly religious services, has been held weekly since Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched a security operation in Baghdad.
Also Friday, nearly 20 trucks carrying heavy equipment left the Japanese base in Samawah, about 370 kilometers (230 miles) southeast of Baghdad, for Kuwait as Tokyo continued its phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Japan’s Defense Agency said civilian contractors were removing some supplies, but a date has not been set for the departure of personnel. The 600 Japanese troops were sent to Iraq in 2004 on a strictly humanitarian, non-combat mission.