A suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden truck into a police station in the northern city of Kirkuk, killing two people there and wounding 55, some critically. (Marwan Ibrahim / AFP via Getty Images)
Biden calls Iraqi leaders amid sectarian violence
Vice President Joe Biden spoke by phone Monday with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his frequent parliamentary critic, in a show of U.S. concern about escalating, al-Qaida-linked violence in Iraq two years after the U.S. pulled out of the Mideast country.
As al-Maliki was urging residents of the city of Fallujah to expel al-Qaida fighters or face all-out battle, Biden lent his support to Iraq’s fight against the local al-Qaida branch, and said he was concerned about those suffering from terrorism. He spoke positively about recent cooperation between Iraq’s military and tribal forces in Anbar, on the Syrian border, where al-Qaida fighters are among the most formidable trying to topple President Bashar Assad.
“Prime Minister Maliki affirmed the importance of working closely with Iraq’s Sunni leaders and communities to isolate extremists,” the White House said in a statement.
With the U.S. concerned about the sectarian nature of the growing violence, Biden also spoke with Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni leader and frequent critic of al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government. The two discussed ways to sustain cooperation between Sunni communities and the Shiite-led government, and al-Nujaifi said he was committed to fighting terrorism, the White House said.
For Biden, who was President Barack Obama’s point-man on the Iraq war, the phone calls reflected the unpleasant reality that two years after American forces departed, violence tied to religious extremism in Iraq has spiked. Late last year, al-Maliki came to the White House requesting weapons and intelligence help to fight insurgents but left without any new announcement by Obama.
Meanwhile, the White House has come under criticism in the U.S. by those who question whether Iraq would be better off today had the U.S. left a military presence in the country, as it is attempting to do in Afghanistan while it winds down its war there.
On Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney pushed back, saying such violence in Iraq took place even when there were 150,000 U.S. troops there. He said the U.S. can assist, and will deliver more missiles and surveillance drones to Iraq this year, but insisted Iraq must take the lead.
“If members (of Congress) were suggesting that there should be American troops fighting and dying in Fallujah today, they should say so,” Carney said. “The president doesn’t believe that.” — AP
BAGHDAD — An Iraqi government airstrike killed 25 al-Qaida-linked militants and fierce clashes broke out west of Baghdad on Tuesday in a flare-up to a days-long standoff in the Sunni-dominated province of Anbar, Iraqi officials said.
Iraqi forces and fighters from government-allied Sunni tribes have been battling militants to recapture two key cities Fallujah and Ramadi, the provincial capital. The al-Qaida gains in Anbar — once bloody battlegrounds for U.S. troops — poses the most serious challenge to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government since the departure of American forces in late 2011.
Iraqi military spokesman Gen. Mohammed al-Askari said the Iraqi air force struck an operations center for the militants on the outskirts of Ramadi, killing 25 fighters who were holed up inside.
He didn't give more details about how the death toll was confirmed but cited intelligence reports. It was not possible to independently verify the military's claim.
The airstrike came after clashes erupted about 20 kilometers (12 miles) west of Fallujah following the capture of an army officer and four soldiers in the area a day earlier, provincial spokesman Dhari al-Rishawi told The Associated Press.
There was no immediate word on casualties for those clashes.
Fighters from an al-Qaida-linked group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant seized control of the center of Fallujah, 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad, and part of the nearby Ramadi last week.
Al-Maliki's government has vowed to rout the militants, calling on Fallujah residents Monday to expel the al-Qaida fighters to avoid an all-out battle.
Iraq's Cabinet met Tuesday to discuss the situation in Anbar and called for the mobilization of all efforts "to support the army and security services in expelling terrorists," according to a government statement.
Military operations would continue, the Cabinet statement added, until Iraq is "cleansed" of terrorism.
Fallujah residents have been streaming out of the city in recent days, fearing an impending assault on the city, according to witnesses.
A medical official in Fallujah said two civilians were killed and five were wounded, including two children, when they were caught Tuesday in an exchange of fire between militants and an Iraqi army troops south of the city as they were trying to flee. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to release information.
The immediate trigger for the unrest was the Dec. 28 arrest of a Sunni lawmaker sought on terrorism charges, followed by the government's dismantling of a months-old anti-government Sunni protest camp in Ramadi.
Sectarian tensions in Iraq have been rising for much longer as Sunni complaints grew that the government was targeting the minority community unfairly with what they alleged were random arrests on terrorism charges and discrimination. It was a U.S.-backed revolt by Sunni tribal leaders against al-Qaida that led to a decline in the sectarian violence that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, and the current unrest has raised fears the country was again being pushed to the brink of civil war.
Violence spiked after the government staged a deadly crackdown on a Sunni protest camp last April. Militants have also targeted civilians, particularly in Shiite areas of Baghdad, with waves of coordinated car bombings and other deadly attacks.
The attacks continued Tuesday when a suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden truck into a police station in the northern city of Kirkuk, killing two people there and wounding 55, some critically, according to Maj. Raid Emad Rasheed.
A roadside bomb struck an army patrol southeast of Baghdad, in the Madain area, killing one soldier and wounding another, a police official said. Another bomb hit a patrol of pro-government, Sunni militiamen in Baghdad's southeastern suburb of Jisr Diyala, killing one fighter and wounding four, he added.
A medical official confirmed the casualty figures. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they are not authorized to talk to the media.
The death toll in 2013 was the highest in Iraq since the worst of the sectarian bloodletting began to subside in 2007, according to United Nations figures. The U.N. said violence killed 8,868 last year.
Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin contributed reporting.