2 mosques hit in apparent retaliation for bombing that killed at least 87
The Associated Press
Updated: 6:04 a.m. MT June 20, 2007
BAGHDAD (AP) - Gunmen blew up two Sunni mosques Wednesday south of Baghdad, causing heavy damage but no casualties, police said, in an apparent retaliatory attack a day after a suicide truck bombing devastated a revered Shiite mosque in the heart of the capital, killing at least 87 people.
Thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops, meanwhile, pressed forward on the second day of an operation aimed at clearing out a Sunni insurgent stronghold northeast of Baghdad. The U.S. military said at least 60 al-Qaida fighters were killed and several bombs and weapons caches destroyed as the soldiers fought their way through the streets of Baqouba.
The U.S. military operation that involves some 10,000 American soldiers in Diyala province, an al-Qaida bastion to the north and east of Baghdad, matched in size the force that American generals sent against the insurgent-held city of Fallujah 2Â½ years ago. By late Tuesday, the military had reported only one American death, a Task Force Lightning soldier killed by an explosion near his vehicle.
Iraqi forces also have joined the battle in Diyala. Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said about 5,000 Iraqi soldiers and 2,000 paramilitary police were fighting, while the military said about 1,000 Iraqi soldiers and an equal number of police were involved. The differing numbers could not be immediately reconciled.
3 suspects detained
The Iraqi Defense Ministry said that three civilians had been wounded in Diyala in addition to the 60 al-Qaida militants. It also said 13 suspected al-Qaida fighters had been detained and 14 roadside bombs dismantled, along with three car bombs and three weapons caches.
â€œThe citizens received the valiant Iraqi army forces with overwhelming joy as the soldiers were waving to them with the V for victory sign,â€ the ministry said in a statement.
The head of a Sunni insurgent group that has turned against al-Qaida and is cooperating with U.S. and Iraqi forces in the area said his fighters were participating in the operations and had succeeded in clearing several neighborhoods in eastern and western Baqouba.
The militant leader, who declined to be identified for fear of retribution, spoke as his fighters linked arms, chanted and danced while women ululated in celebration. An Associated Press reporter also saw residents in the Mustafa area in western Baqouba serving food to fighters who had battled al-Qaida and starting to repair their stores.
Sunni mosques, imam's home attacked
Sectarian violence persisted to the south, with suspected Shiite militiamen detonating a bomb inside a Sunni mosque in Haswa, 30 miles south of Baghdad, at about 1 a.m., then in another mosque near Hillah, about 60 miles south of the capital, about six hours later, local police officers said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.
The attackers near Hillah also targeted the imamâ€™s house near the mosque, but the cleric fled when he saw them coming, according to the police.
Tuesdayâ€™s bombing against the Khulani mosque in central Baghdad was the deadliest single attack in Iraq since April 18, when at least 127 civilians were killed when a bomb detonated in a parked car at a mostly Shiite market in central Baghdad.
Police said a truck piled high with electric fans and air conditioners delivered the huge bomb at the Khulani mosque. The powerful explosion in the busy commercial district cut deep into Iraqâ€™s Shiite community on just the second day after authorities lifted a four-day curfew in the capital.
The vehicle ban had been imposed to prevent revenge attacks after a bombing last week brought down twin golden minarets at the important Shiite al-Askariya shrine in Samarra, north of the capital. A bombing that destroyed the golden dome there on Feb. 26, 2006, set in motion the sectarian bloodletting that has sundered the sectarian fault line in Iraq.
Hallmarks of al-Qaida
Tuesdayâ€™s suicide bombing bore the hallmarks of Sunni insurgents, particularly al-Qaida. The Khulani mosqueâ€™s imam, Sheik Saleh al-Haidari, said the bombing was particularly deadly because worshippers were just leaving a prayer service.
â€œThis attack was planned and carried out by sick souls,â€ al-Haidari told The Associated Press by telephone. He said his office and the room above collapsed but that he was not in the mosque at the time of the attack.
A courtyard wall collapsed, and a building just inside the mosque compound was turned to rubble. The mosque sanctuary was slightly damaged. AP Television News footage showed broken glass scattered on the patterned rugs that lined the floor around the golden tomb that is believed to hold the remains of Sheik Mohammed Othoman Said al-Khulani.
Al-Khulani is a much-revered Shiite figure who, according to the sectâ€™s tradition, was one of four â€œearthlyâ€ deputies anointed by the Imam Mohammed al-Mahdi, who disappeared in the 9th century. Shiites believe the so-called â€œHidden Imamâ€ will return to Earth to restore justice to humanity.
The Interior Ministry reported Wednesday that the death toll had risen to 87, with another 214 injured in the blast.
Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a military spokesman in Baghdad, said the truck was loaded with propane tanks and that a suicide driver detonated his bomb when the vehicle became stuck trying to drive over a curb.