BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi security forces announced on Monday the capture of a senior al-Qaida figure, and the U.S. ambassador said the risk of civil war from last week's sectarian violence was over.
Violence throughout Iraq killed 36 people Monday, as fierce fighting broke out between Iraqi commandos and insurgents southeast of the capital. But sectarian clashes have declined sharply since the bloodletting that followed the destruction of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra, and Baghdad residents returned to their jobs after three days of a government-imposed curfew.
"We were at home for three days doing nothing," tea vendor Abbas Kudir said. "We are of limited income. We earn money when people can come and buy tea normally. We hope the government will pay attention to our difficulties."
Sunni Arab leaders said they were prepared to end their boycott of the talks on a new government if Shiites return mosques seized in reprisal attacks against Sunnis and meet other unspecified demands.
"That crisis is over," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad declared.
"I think the country came to the brink of a civil war, but the Iraqis decided that they didn't want to go down that path, and came together," the ambassador told CNN. "Clearly the terrorists who plotted that attack wanted to provoke a civil war. It looked quite dangerous in the initial 48 hours, but I believe that the Iraqis decided to come together."
Also Monday, Iraqi Interior Ministry officials said they believe American journalist Jill Carroll remains alive the day after a deadline set by her captors passed with no word of her fate. A senior ministry official refused to say why they don't believe Carroll's captors carried out their threat to kill the 28-year-old freelancer for the Christian Science Monitor.
The captured al-Qaida figure was identified as Abou al-Farouq, a Syrian who financed and coordinated groups working for Iraq's most wanted terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in the insurgent stronghold of Ramadi, according to an Interior Ministry officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to address the media.
Acting on a tip from residents, members of the Interior Ministry's Wolf Brigade captured al-Farouq with five other followers of al-Zarqawi near Bakr, about 100 miles west of Baghdad, the ministry said.
The Defense Ministry said Iraqi security forces have killed 35 insurgents and arrested 487 in raids across the country since the bombing last Wednesday of the Samarra shrine.
The Shiite-Sunni violence threatened U.S. plans of a broad-based government capable of luring Sunni Arabs away from the deadly insurgency so coalition troops can begin heading home.
Adnan al-Dulaimi, whose Iraqi Accordance Front spearheaded the Sunni walkout from the talks, said the Sunnis are "intent on participating" in a new government but are holding out for "some conditions" to be met.
The U.S. State Department praised the Sunni leadership as "looking to get back into the game, full strength" and brushed aside the additional demands.
"The conditions are less important than the fact that there are good-faith discussions going on about resuming full-bore talks on a national unity government," said deputy spokesman Adam Ereli in Washington.
The speed with which sectarian attacks spread from Samarra to Baghdad and Shiite strongholds in southern Iraq raised concern about the ability of Iraq's understaffed and ill-equipped security forces to handle the crisis.
Sunni leaders accused the Shiite-dominated police and army of standing by as Shiite militiamen sprayed their mosques with machine-gun fire and took over some of them. More than 200 people were reported killed in sectarian violence.
The Defense Ministry countered Monday that a curfew in Baghdad and three surrounding provinces curtailed the violence.
A spokesman identified the Iraqis captured and killed since Wednesday as linked to various terror groups, including al-Qaida in Iraq, but could not confirm whether any of them took part in the Samara shrine bombing.
U.S. helicopters fired on three houses 15 miles west of Samarra and arrested 10 people, Iraqi police said. It was unclear if the raid was linked to the shrine bombing. The U.S. military did not immediately comment.
Interior Ministry commandos fought a three-hour gunbattle with Sunni-led insurgents near Nahrawan, about 15 miles southeast of Baghdad, after about 15 Shiite families were driven from their homes in the nearby village of Saidat, police said. At least eight commandos and five insurgents were killed in the fighting, which also injured six commandos and four civilians, police said.
The body of an official with Iraq's largest Sunni Muslim political group was delivered to the Health Ministry morgue Monday with signs of torture, his party said. Waad Jassim al-Ani, a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, was seized from his home Saturday by an unspecified "security agency," the party said. Sunni leaders accuse Iraq's Shiite-led Interior Ministry of running death squads that target them -- a charge denied by the ministry.
The U.S. military said an American soldier had died from non-combat related injuries suffered Friday north of Baghdad. The statement did not elaborate. Three soldiers were killed Sunday in combat operations in the capital.
Their deaths brought to at least 2,291 the number of members of the U.S. military who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. The figure includes seven military civilians.
Associated Press Writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Bassem Mroue and Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report from Baghdad