Attacker kills seven as al-Qaida targets more Sunni groups in Iraq

Thursday, January 3, 2008

BAGHDAD -- A suicide bombing north of Baghdad on Wednesday and a string of attacks against members of a burgeoning Sunni tribal movement have demonstrated al-Qaida in Iraq's concern over the alliance between the U.S. military and the grassroots groups.

U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner said the attacks were the "clearest indication" that the foreign-led al-Qaida was worried about losing the support of its fellow Sunni Arabs.

Last week, Osama bin Laden warned Iraq's Sunni Arabs against joining the groups fighting al-Qaida or participating in any unity government. The overwhelmingly Sunni tribal groups -- known as Awakening Councils or Concerned Local Citizens -- have since been the targets of a series of deadly attacks.

In the latest one, a bomber wearing a vest loaded with explosives killed seven people Wednesday and wounded 22 in Baqouba, the capital of Diyala province, police said. The dead included a policeman and two members of an Awakening Council group called the Brigades of 1920s Revolution, a former insurgent group, police said.

Police Col. Raghib al-Omari said the bomber detonated the vest near a hospital in the center of Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. The U.S. military, however, said the suicide bomber killed four people and wounded six after jumping onto the hood of a car being driven by an Awakening Council member.

The different death tolls could not immediately be reconciled.

A number of insurgent groups are thought to have switched allegiances and joined the Awakening Councils. There are more than 70,000 men in about 300 such groups being bankrolled by the U.S. around Iraq, and the number is expected to grow.

"I think that the Concerned Local Citizens and those in the Awakening movement have already proven their courage and their willingness to stay committed to the path they have chosen," Bergner said, adding that council members have been attacked "in significant numbers and have stayed on their post."

Bergner also said al-Qaida in Iraq remained capable of mounting "barbaric attacks" against Iraqis -- and blamed it for a suicide bombing at a Baghdad funeral that killed 36 people Tuesday.

"They are concerned about it, that this grassroots movement has changed the dynamic," Bergner said. "It is perhaps the clearest evidence of Iraqi citizens rejecting Taliban ideology, corrupt practices and the indiscriminate violence that the Iraqi people no longer accept."

The carnage Wednesday was a reminder of the dangers that persist despite a recent decline in violence in Iraq.

"We have said that al-Qaida seeks to continue to have the capability, and still do have the capability to carry out these horrific, these barbaric attacks that target innocent civilians in their effort to incite sectarian tensions," Bergner said.

The volunteer Sunni tribal groups are credited with helping to more than halve violence around Iraq in the past six months. The deployment of tens of thousands of additional American troops and a cease-fire by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have also helped ease attacks.

Most of the fighting against al-Qaida is now concentrated to the north of Baghdad and some parts just south of the capital.

In one such fight Monday, military forces assigned to the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division killed nine suspected al-Qaida insurgents. Military operations in Diyala resulted in the killing of three al-Qaida insurgents and the arrest of 11, the U.S.-led coalition said.

Bergner said a total of 51 al-Qaida leaders were killed or captured in December, but added that al-Qaida would still be its top security challenge in 2008.

"We know it will be a tough fight," he said. "But even in the midst of this tough fight, Iraqi forces and the people are standing up and reclaiming their communities, their neighborhoods and their lives."

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