BAGHDAD – Former Sunni insurgents asked the U.S. to stay away, then ambushed members of al-Qaida in Iraq, killing 18 in a battle that raged for hours north of Baghdad, an ex-insurgent leader and Iraqi police said Saturday.
The Islamic Army in Iraq sent advance word to Iraqi police requesting that U.S. helicopters keep out of the area since its fighters had no uniforms and were indistinguishable from al-Qaida, according to the police and a top Islamic Army leader known as Abu Ibrahim.
Abu Ibrahim said his fighters killed 18 al-Qaida militants and captured 16 in the fight southeast of Samarra, a mostly Sunni city about 60 miles north of Baghdad.
“We found out that al-Qaida intended to attack us, so we ambushed them at 3 p.m. on Friday,” Abu Ibrahim said. He would not say whether any Islamic Army members were killed.
Much of the Islamic Army in Iraq, a major Sunni Arab insurgent group that includes former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party, has joined the U.S.-led fight against al-Qaida in Iraq along with Sunni tribesmen and other former insurgents repelled by the terror group’s brutality and extremism.
An Iraqi police officer corroborated Abu Ibrahim’s account, but said policemen were not able to verify the number of bodies because the area was still too dangerous to enter.
Instead, he said, he believed the Islamic Army would offer a prisoner swap for some of its members held by al-Qaida. Meanwhile, farther east, in Diyala province, members of another former insurgent group, the 1920s Revolution Brigades, launched a military-style operation Saturday against al-Qaida in Iraq there, the Iraqi army said.
About 60 militants were captured and handed over to Iraqi soldiers, an Iraqi army officer said.
Like the Islamic Army, the 1920s Revolution Brigades includes former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party and officers from his army. Hundreds of 1920s members now work as scouts and gather intelligence for American soldiers in Diyala.
The backlash against al-Qaida among Iraq’s Sunni Arab community began in Iraq’s western Anbar province last year. Americans recruited Sunni sheiks to help oust al-Qaida from their home turf, and the movement spread to former militants who once fought U.S. and Iraqi soldiers.
Along with a U.S. force buildup of 30,000 troops, the Sunni fighters are credited with wresting neighborhoods back from the terror network – yielding a sharp drop in violence here in recent months.
Some 50,000 Iraqis have signed up to be what the military calls “concerned local citizens.”
The U.S. military announced the death of another American soldier, killed a day earlier in an explosion in Diyala. Three others were wounded in the blast, it said.
Twenty people were killed or found dead across Iraq, including four civilians who died on minibuses hit by roadside bombs on their way to work, police said.