BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP -U.S. soldiers raided a funeral and detained 60 men suspected of ties to al-Qaida car bombings, the U.S. command said Saturday in announcing the first major roundup of suspected insurgents since troop reinforcements began arriving for a new crackdown in Baghdad.
Seven people were killed across Iraq on Saturday, including two in the southern city of Basra when a bomb exploded at a shop selling CDs featuring sermons and interviews of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Despite the rise in sectarian fighting and other violence, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he would not rule out U.S. troop reductions this year. Pace, who arrived in Baghdad on Saturday, said he would consult with top commanders on the outlook for a turnaround in the violence and the need for U.S. troops.
A statement by the U.S. military said the arrests in Baghdad were made Friday in Arab Jabour, a southern neighborhood of the capital and a stronghold of Sunni insurgents. The 60 detained men are believed associated with a senior Iraqi al-Qaida leader in a cell that “specializes in bomb making,” the statement said.
“The group has been reported to be planning and conducting training for future attacks,” it said. “Multiple forms of credible intelligence led the assault force to the location, later determined to be a funeral gathering, where the suspects were detained.”
Women and children at the funeral were separated from the men and the arrests were made without incident, the statement said without giving any details.
Baghdad and the Sunni-dominated Anbar province west of the capital are centers of the insurgency, which uses bombings, suicide attacks, mortar barrages and armed assaults by gunmen.
Attention has focused on Baghdad due to a rise in Sunni-Shiite bloodshed, which U.S. officials describe as the greatest danger facing Iraq’s new government of national unity. Between 1,000 and 1,500 people have been killed every month in the Baghdad area since January.
U.S. commanders are rushing nearly 12,000 more American and Iraqi soldiers into the capital. The military has not said how many reinforcements have arrived in Baghdad beginning last week, but some soldiers of the Army’s 172nd Stryker Brigade have been seen on the city’s streets.
The mounting violence prompted the United States to increase its troop levels in Iraq. But Pace said that “there is still the potential to reduce the number of troops” this year, though he would not say how soon he thought this could happen.
“We thought as recently as a month or so ago that we were going to be able to come down” in the numbers, he said in an interview aboard his plane on an overnight flight from Washington. “What changed was the increase in sectarian violence.”
Much of the violence is blamed on al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which launched two uprisings against U.S. forces in November 2004, resulting in heavy fighting.
In an interview with the New York Times published Saturday, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said Iran was instigating Shiite militias to step up attacks on U.S. forces in retaliation for the Israeli assault on Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Shiite Hezbollah is backed by Iran.
Iran’s prodding has led to a surge in mortar and rocket attacks on the fortified Green Zone, the compound that houses the main components of the Iraqi government and the U.S. Embassy, Khalilzad was quoted as saying.
The Shiite guerrillas behind the attacks are members of splinter groups of the Mahdi Army, he said. The newspaper quoted unidentified officials of the Sadr Organization as saying that rogue elements of the Mahdi Army are not under their control and carry out attacks without guidance from al-Sadr.
“Iran is seeking to put more pressure, encourage more pressure on the coalition from the forces that they are allied with here,” Khalilzad was quoted as saying.
U.S. Embassy officials were not immediately available to confirm Khalilzad’s comments.
The extent of Iranian involvement here has long been the subject of debate within the U.S. military and civilian establishment. Privately, some senior U.S. officials are skeptical the Iranian government is doing more than providing money to select Shiite groups. Others insist Iran is providing weapons and training to some Shiite factions.
The increase in attacks on the Green Zone also followed a coalition crackdown on Mahdi Army elements in Basra, Mahmoudiya, Musayyib and Baghdad.
In violence Saturday, a bomb exploded in the southern city of Basra at a shop selling CDs featuring sermons and interviews of al-Sadr. Two people were killed and four were wounded, police said.
Two brothers were shot dead while driving their car in Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, police Col. Abdul Karim al-Jibouri said.
A police captain, a civilian and an army lieutenant were killed in similar drive-by shootings in other parts of Iraq, police said. An unidentified also body was found in Baghdad.