Iranian Fighters Captured as US, Iraqi Forces Clash with Shi'ite Militia
Iraqi and U.S. troops battled Shi'ite militiamen in a village northeast of Baghdad on Thursday, and witnesses and police said U.S. helicopters bombed orchards to flush out gunmen hiding there. Iraqi security officials said Iranian fighters had been captured in the fighting, in which a sniper shot dead the commander of an Iraqi quick reaction force and two of his men. They did not say how the Iranians had been identified.
A civilian was also killed and five people were wounded in the clashes, they said.
The U.S. military had no immediate comment.
Police said the fighting was taking place in the predominantly Shi'ite village of Khairnabat, three km (two miles) north of Baquba, capital of Diyala province. Local residents reported hearing shooting and explosions.
A bomb in the town's main market killed 18 people on Monday. On Wednesday, Shi'ite militiamen fired mortars at a Sunni mosque in nearby Miqdadiya, destroying the building and 20 shops.
Police said the mosque attack and other attacks on Sunnis in Khairnabat itself persuaded Sunnis that it would be safer to leave the village. But as a convoy of vehicles was leaving on Thursday, "gunmen surrounded them and started shooting," a captain in Diyala's police intelligence unit told Reuters.
Baquba's quick reaction force, an Interior Ministry unit, responded and clashed with the fighters, the captain said. Iraqi and U.S. reinforcements then arrived and sealed off the village.
Police and witnesses said U.S. helicopters had bombed orchards where militiamen were believed to be hiding under the cover of date palms.
Police said bombing continued as night fell.
The captain and other Interior Ministry sources said the commander of the quick reaction force, Colonel Sami Hussein, and two of his men were killed by a sniper.
No other casualties were reported from the clashes and police said it was not clear how many civilians had been killed or wounded in the initial shooting at the convoy. The wounded were taken to a hospital in Baquba.
"We captured a number of militants and were surprised to see that some of them were Iranian fighters," the police intelligence captain said.
An Interior Ministry official, who did not want to be named, also said Iranian gunmen had been captured. Baquba lies 90 km (60 miles) from the Iranian border. READ MORE
The United States and Britain have accused Shi'ite Iran of meddling in Iraq's affairs and providing military assistance to Iraq's pro-government Shi'ite militias. However, there have been few instances of Iranians actually being captured inside Iraq.
Some Iraqis, particularly Sunnis, are quick to label Shi'ite fighters as Iranian agents. And among the militants are Iraqis who grew up in refugee camps in Iran, speak Iranian-accented Arabic and, in some cases, carry Iranian identity papers.
Police have said Shi'ite fighters in the area belong to the Mehdi Army of radical, Iranian-backed cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Sadr's movement, which staged two uprisings against occupying troops in 2004, denies being behind sectarian violence.
Diyala, where al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed earlier this month, has seen much sectarian violence among its diverse population. A number of Shi'ite shrines were destroyed in attacks there six weeks ago.
Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has made controlling Shi'ite militia groups, as well as Sunni insurgents, a goal of a national reconciliation plan unveiled on Sunday.
Many analysts are skeptical of the feasibility of disarming large paramilitary groups linked to the most powerful political parties. Without that, however, persuading the Sunni minority to lay down their arms will also be difficult.
Sunni political leaders dismissed on Thursday reports of significant peace moves from insurgents since Maliki's speech in parliament.
Several politicians and figures who claim to speak for militant groups said the plan was short on guarantees about curbing Shi'ite guerrillas and on the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
(Additional reporting by Ross Colvin, Mohammed al-Ramahi, Alastair Macdonald, Mussab Al-Khairalla, Ibon Villelabeitia and Hiba Moussa in Baghdad)