Anti-Shiite extremists attack pilgrims, United States-Iraqi forces press anti-insurgent sweep

With bombs and drive-by shootings, anti-Shiite extremists targeted pilgrims on the road to holy Karbala on Friday, as political leaders remained divided over how to shape a broad-based government to work for peace in Iraq .

In Sunni Muslim areas of western Baghdad , gunmen in passing automobiles killed three Shiite Muslim pilgrims and wounded five others. To the south, bombs in a minibus and along the pilgrimage road killed two people and wounded nine.

North of the capital, meanwhile, helicopter-borne U.S. and Iraqi troops pressed their sweep through a 300-square-kilometer (100-square-mile) swath of the Sunni Triangle to break up a growing insurgent stronghold, the U.S. military said.

No resistance or casualties were reported as the offensive picked up dozens of insurgent suspects.

The operation was mounted Thursday northeast of the city of Samarra , where an insurgent bombing on Feb. 22 badly damaged a major Shiite shrine and ignited days of sectarian bloodshed across Iraq in which more than 500 people died.

That explosion of violence deepened the political divide between representatives of the Shiite majority and Sunni minority that is blocking formation of a new government of national unity. An all-party meeting was scheduled for later Friday to try to move those negotiations forward.

In an Associated Press interview, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said Friday that discussions were under way about when he would meet with Iranian officials to discuss the Iraqi political situation. Iran 's Shiite leadership has considerable influence among Iraq 's newly powerful Shiite groups.

The talks should be held in Baghdad , Khalilzad said.

Authorities had feared new attacks here as tens of thousands of devout Shiites converged on Karbala , 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of here, for Monday's celebration of Arbaeen, a day of mourning for Imam Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, who was killed at Karbala in 680 A.D.

Friday's Baghdad bloodshed began as groups of Shiite faithful, many of them parents with children in tow, trekked down city streets in the morning, headed for the southbound highway to Karbala .

At about 7:30 a.m. , a BMW sedan driving alongside pilgrims in the western district of Adil opened fire, killing three young men and wounding two other people, said police Lt. Thair Mahmoud. Police later reported a second incident, also in western Baghdad , in which armed men riding in a car fired on pilgrims near Um al-Tuboul Square, wounding three.

About midday , a bomb left in a plastic bag of vegetables on a minibus exploded and killed two passengers and wounded four in a Shiite district of Baghdad, said police Lt. Bilal Ali. Later in the day, a roadside bomb exploded as a crowd of pilgrims passed in Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad , and wounded five people, said police Lt. Thair Mahmoud.

Elsewhere, police in a Shiite area of east Baghdad late Thursday found the bodies of four Sunni men who had been seized from a taxi by masked gunmen the day before in western Baghdad . And police reported that six mortar rounds landed on six houses Friday in a mixed Sunni-Shiite area of Khan Bani Saad, 17 kilometers (10 miles) north of Baghdad , killing one person and wounding three.

To help guard against violence in Shiite holy cities, the U.S. military earlier this week announced it was dispatching a fresh battalion of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, about 700 troops, to Iraq from its base in Kuwait to provide extra security.

The joint U.S.-Iraqi air assault Thursday, described as the biggest such operation in Iraq in three years, focused on a 17-by-17-kilometer (10-by-10-mile) area some 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad and northeast of Samarra .

"We believe we achieved tactical surprise," Lt. Col. Edward Loomis, spokesman for the 101st Airborne Division, said of the day-old Operation Swarmer. He said about 40 suspects were detained, 10 of whom were later released.

Fifty U.S. transport and attack helicopters airlifted and gave cover to some 1,500 U.S. and Iraqi troops taking part in Operation Swarmer units of the 101st Airborne Division and the Iraqi 4th Division.

Loomis said the forces "continue to move" through the area. "Approximately 40 suspected insurgents were detained without resistance," he said. "Tactical interviews began immediately, and 10 detainees have been released."

The sweep also uncovered six weapons caches, the U.S. military spokesman said.

The operation was aimed at disrupting "terrorist activity in and around Samarra, Adwar and Salahuddin province," he said, an area that was a stronghold of Sunni support for Saddam Hussein's ousted Baathist party regime.

Saddam's former No. 2, Izzat Ibrahim, who was deputy chairman of the ruling Revolutionary Command Council, was from the city of Adwar and is still at large at times thought to remain in that area.

The deputy governor of Salahuddin province, Abdullah Hussein, told reporters Friday that 48 alleged insurgents had been detained, men accused of bombings and kidnappings.

He said intelligence indicated about 200 insurgents were in the area, including people linked to the Baathist group Jaish Muhammad Muhammad's Army and to the al-Qaida in Iraq terror group, led by Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi.

The sweep was aimed particularly at capturing two local leaders of the Zarqawi group, said a police official. He said they had not yet been located.

Iraqi officials said Salahuddin province became more important as an insurgent center after the U.S. offensive that seized the resistance stronghold of Fallujah in late 2004, and subsequent U.S.-Iraqi offensives in other western areas close to the Syrian border.

Iraq 's new Parliament held its first session on Thursday, as the first permanent elected legislature since the U.S. invasion, which began three years ago this coming Monday.

The lawmakers immediately adjourned, however, after taking their oaths of office, since the deep-seated sectarian disputes have all but paralyzed efforts to name a prime minister and Cabinet. The U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been trying to broker talks to establish a government embracing major factions in a way acceptable to Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs in Parliament, reports the AP.


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