Two die in fight between Iraqi units

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – An armed confrontation between two Iraqi army units left one soldier and one civilian dead Friday, raising questions about the U.S.-trained force’s ability to maintain control at a time when sectarian and ethnic tensions are running high.

The incident near Duluiyah, about 45 miles north of Baghdad, illustrates the command and control problems facing the new Iraqi army, which the Americans hope can take over security in most of the country by the end of the year. It also shows that divisions within the military mirror those of Iraqi society at large.

The trouble started when a roadside bomb struck an Iraqi army convoy, which police said was made up of Kurdish soldiers. Four soldiers were killed and three were wounded, police said. U.S. military officials put the casualty figure at one dead and 12 wounded.

According to both the U.S. and Iraqi accounts, the wounded were rushed to the U.S. military hospital in Balad. Police said that as the Kurdish soldiers drove to the hospital, they fired weapons to clear the way, and one Iraqi Shiite civilian was killed.

Shiite soldiers from another Iraqi unit based in Balad rushed to the scene, and the Kurds decided to take their wounded elsewhere, Iraqi police said. Iraqi troops tried to stop them and shots were fired, killing one Shiite soldier, Iraqi police said.

The U.S. account said an Iraqi soldier from the 3rd Battalion, 1st Brigade was killed in a “confrontation” as the other Iraqi troops were trying to remove their wounded from the hospital. The U.S. statement did not explain why the troops wanted to take their wounded from the best-equipped American medical facility in the country.

A third Iraqi army unit set up a roadblock in the area and stopped the soldiers who were leaving with their wounded, the U.S. statement said. American troops intervened at the roadblock and calmed the situation.

The U.S. said the Iraqi army was investigating the incident.

Thousands of Kurdish peshmerga militiamen were integrated into the Iraqi army and provide security in areas with large Kurdish populations, some of which are located near Shiite and Sunni Arab communities.

Shiites, who comprise an estimated 60 percent of Iraq’s 27 million people, dominate the ranks of the army. Efforts are under way to recruit more Sunni Arabs, especially for duty in Sunni areas of western Iraq.

Sunni community leaders complain that the presence of Shiite soldiers fuels resentment of the government, which is trying to lure Sunni Arabs away from the insurgency.

The effort to reach out to the Sunnis is taking place against a backdrop of sharp tensions between the two Muslim sects, fueled by tit-for-tat assassinations, many of them blamed on militias.

In Basra, gunmen killed a Sunni Arab cleric and his son as they left a Friday prayer service – the second assassination in three days of Sunni leaders in the predominantly Shiite south.

Their deaths occurred after Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani ordered the three-day closure of Shiite mosques in the nearby southern town of Zubayr to protest the assassination this week of another Sunni cleric and two of his associates there.

On Friday, President Bush singled out Iraq’s militias as the biggest impediment to restoring stability in Iraq, saying “it’s going to be up to the government to step up and take care of that militia so that the Iraqi people are confident in the security of their country.”

Bush, whose popularity has suffered because of his policy in Iraq, spoke at the White House, where he met with 10 former secretaries of state and defense from both Republican and Democratic administrations to discuss Iraq and the broader Middle East.

Also Friday, the U.S. military announced that four Marines drowned the day before when their tank rolled off a bridge and into a canal in Karmah, 50 miles west of Baghdad. Their deaths raised to 12 the number of U.S. service members who have died in Iraq this week, according to an Associated Press count.

As violence continues, Prime Minister-designate Nouri al-Maliki is struggling to put together his new Cabinet, the final step in establishing his new government of national unity. The pace has been slow because of competing rivalries among Iraq’s political parties, most of which represent specific religious or ethnic groups.

Frustration with the process led one Shiite party, Fadhila, to announce Friday that it was withdrawing from the Cabinet negotiations, saying they were driven by partisan self-interest and U.S. pressure.

“We have found that the way the negotiations are progressing, and the way posts are being distributed, which is based on personal interest and selfish desires … will not lead to the formation of a truly new Iraq,” party spokesman Sabah al-Saedi told the AP.

Al-Saedi said the party, which holds 15 parliament seats, will form an opposition bloc in the legislature.

Al-Maliki is working against a constitutional deadline of May 22 to present his Cabinet to parliament for its approval. Squabbles over top posts such as the oil, defense and interior ministries threaten to push the talks down to the wire.

Some lawmakers have suggested that al-Maliki could present some of his Cabinet on Sunday and take over the defense and interior portfolios himself until all parties agreed on choices to head them.

On Friday, Al-Jazeera television broadcast a video in which a self-described armed Shiite group said it had carried out separate attacks against a U.S. military Bradley fighting vehicle and a car carrying Western contractors.

The video showed the Bradley engulfed in orange flames from a roadside bomb. Other clips showed two cars speeding along a stretch of desert road when a string of bombs detonated simultaneously, engulfing the scene in thick, gray smoke.

The video bore the name “People of Truth Factions,” which the militants said was part of the heretofore unknown Imam Moussa al-Kadhim Brigades, named after an 8th century Shiite saint.

Al-Jazeera said the claim could not be authenticated, and the U.S. military said it believed the video was old footage.


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