Gunmen kill Sunni community leader; four U.S. Marines die in western Iraq

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Gunmen assassinated a Sunni community leader Tuesday in the former extremist stronghold of Fallujah -- part of an insurgent campaign to prevent prominent Sunni Arabs from joining the U.S.-backed political process.

Bombs and bullets killed at least 11 other people, including four Marines who died in a pair of bombings in western Anbar province.

Sheik Kamal Nazal, a Sunni preacher and chairman of the Fallujah city council, was gunned down in a hail of bullets from two passing cars as he walked to work, police Chief Brig. Hudairi al-Janabi said.

No group claimed responsibility for the killing, which occurred in one of the most tightly controlled cities in Iraq. However, it appeared part of a campaign of intimidation by Sunni insurgents against Sunni Arabs interested in promoting a political settlement to stem the violence.

Last month, Nazal welcomed Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to the city 40 miles west of Baghdad.

U.S. officials have been working hard to encourage Sunni Arabs to abandon the insurgency, and have been urging Shiite and Kurdish leaders to give major government posts to the disaffected minority.

American diplomats and military commanders believe that strategy offers the best way to calm the insurgency so U.S. and other international troops can begin heading home.

U.S. authorities arranged a meeting with local Sunni leaders in Ramadi on Nov. 28 as a major step in a political dialogue. But a suicide attack Jan. 5 against Sunni police recruits in the city -- which is about 30 miles from Fallujah -- set back the process. Nearly 60 people were killed, including two Americans.

A senior member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni political group seeking a place in the new government, deplored Tuesday's assassination and blamed U.S. and Iraqi authorities in part for failing to protect the sheik.

"Those who wanted to eliminate Sheik Nazal are aimed at bringing more instability to the city," Dr. Salman al-Jumaili said. "We hold the Iraqi government and occupation forces responsible for bringing all this suffering and damage to this city."

Fallujah was the major stronghold of insurgent and religious extremists, including al-Qaida in Iraq, until the city fell to a U.S. air and ground assault in November 2004. Fallujah since has become one of the most intensely guarded cities in the nation.

The four Marines died in bombings in Anbar province, which also includes Fallujah and Ramadi and is a focus of insurgent activity.

Three Marines assigned to the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit were killed Monday in a bombing in Hit, 85 miles west of Baghdad, the military said. The other Marine, attached to the 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, died from wounds caused by a bombing Sunday in an unspecified location in Anbar.

The deaths bring the number of U.S. military personnel killed to at least 2,257 since the Iraq war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

In Baghdad, seven people were killed when two bombs exploded within 10 minutes on a commercial street near downtown Tahrir Square.

The first bomb exploded in a plastic bag left near a CD vendor's stand, police said. Three people were killed, said police Capt. Mohammed Abdul Ghani. The second bomb, which was hidden in a drainpipe, went off a short distance away and killed four people, including a policeman, Ghani said.

Hospital officials said at least 20 people were wounded in the bombings.

Iraqi security forces detained at least 26 suspected Sunni Arab insurgents who officials said were planning to attack Shiite Muslim pilgrims during Ashoura commemorations, which climax Thursday. The ceremonies mark the 7th century death of Shiite saint Imam Hussein, and attract hundreds of thousands of Shiites from all over the Muslim world.

Iraqi security forces are on high alert to prevent a repeat of the past two Ashoura ceremonies, in which Sunni Arab suicide bombers attacked Shiite worshippers, killing more than 230 people in Baghdad and the Shiite holy city of Karbala to the south.

Late Monday, about 100 Iraqi security forces, some rappelling from U.S. helicopters, raided a site 20 miles southeast of Baghdad and detained 26 people. The U.S. military said the operation targeted insurgents planning attacks on Shiites bound for Karbala.

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