U.S. troops kill 10 insurgents in Iraq

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – U.S. troops raided a suspected al-Qaida hide-out Tuesday, killing 10 insurgents – three of them wearing suicide vests – as American forces stepped up the hunt for the group’s leader, terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

American troops searched for “an al-Qaida terrorist leader” in the pre-dawn raid at a safehouse about 25 miles southwest of the U.S. air base in Balad, north of Baghdad, the military said.

The raid unfolded when troops surprised a guard and shot him before he could fire his pistol, the military said. As the insurgent fell, he detonated a suicide vest. Two more insurgents were killed inside the hide-out and the others outside as they tried to escape. Two of the dead were also found wearing explosive vests. One insurgent was wounded.

The statement did not say whether al-Zarqawi was the target of the raid or whether anyone escaped.

It was the fourth raid reported by the U.S. command against al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaida-in-Iraq network since April 16, when American troops stormed a house in Youssifiyah just south of the capital, killing six people, including a woman, and arresting five people, among them an unidentified al-Qaida official.

However, CNN reported that the captives said al-Zarqawi had been in a nearby house.

Stepped-up operations against al-Zarqawi’s network are taking place as U.S. and Iraqi officials are making overtures to other Sunni Arab groups, hoping to persuade them to abandon the insurgency and join the political process under a new government of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

Last weekend, President Jalal Talabani said officials from his office had met with insurgent representatives and he was hopeful they might agree to a deal. Talabani also said American officials had met with insurgents.

U.S. officials have confirmed meeting Iraqis linked to the Sunni Arab insurgency but have avoided identifying them. Last month, however, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad attributed a sharp drop in U.S. deaths in March to an ongoing dialogue with disaffected Sunnis.

On Tuesday, a leading Arabic language newspaper said Khalilzad had met with insurgent representatives in Amman, Jordan, on Jan. 16 and later in Baghdad on seven occasions. The newspaper, Asharq Al-Awsat, attributed the information to an unidentified insurgent official.

The official was quoted as saying the insurgents presented several demands, including a halt to military operations, an end to arrests of “innocent Iraqis” and the release of prisoners “who were arrested unjustly.”

According to the newspaper, the official said his group presented a memorandum to Khalilzad, who expressed interest and promised to respond. However, no response was received and the insurgents decided to break off the dialogue after the new government was announced April 22.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said “we have made it clear that we are interested in talking to people who know somebody who knows somebody who might be involved in insurgent activities in an effort to bring these people into the political process.”

Khalilzad has spoken in several interviews about reaching out to the Sunnis, but U.S. officials have avoided saying publicly that they had met with representatives of insurgent groups.

In an interview with the BBC in April, the ambassador also cautioned that the dialogue was “a long way” from a deal to end the fighting.

Since the drop in U.S. deaths in March, American casualties have been rising. April was the deadliest month of the year for American forces with more than 70 fatalities.

A U.S. soldier was killed Tuesday in a roadside bombing south of Baghdad, the U.S. command said. At least 2,406 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

U.S. overtures to the Sunnis appear to have slowed in recent weeks as American diplomats and Iraqi politicians focused on speeding up formation of the new government, which had been deadlocked until the Shiites agreed to replace Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari with another Shiite, Nouri al-Maliki.

Al-Maliki was officially appointed as prime minister-designate on April 22 and has pledged to complete his Cabinet this month. That will be the final stage in establishing the new government. U.S. officials believe a unity government can over time calm sectarian tensions and lure many Sunnis away from the insurgency.

On Tuesday, Shiite officials reported a new snag emerged in the negotiations when Sunni politicians insisted on key posts, including deputy prime minister and a major ministry such as finance or education.

Shiites, who hold 130 of the 275 seats in parliament, offered a lesser ministry but the Sunnis refused, according to Shiite politician Bassem Sharif. Talks were to continue Wednesday, he said.

Sunni politicians are also eager for parliament to consider amendments to the new constitution. Sunnis oppose several provisions, including one allowing formation of regional governments. Many Sunnis fear that would lead to Iraq’s breakup and deprive them of a fair share of the country’s vast oil wealth.

Shiites and Kurds agreed to study changes in the constitution during the first four months of the new parliament. However, Shiite officials said Tuesday they want to delay formation of the committee to study changes until the new Cabinet has been chosen.

The issue is due for discussion during a parliament session Wednesday.

In a speech Tuesday on state-run Iraqiya television, parliament speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni Arab, said all Iraqis must renounce violence, and that Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish political parties must rule “by a common vision.”

“Not an hour passes without Iraqis being stricken by the killing of our sons and loved ones in Baghdad and other areas, by booby traps, kidnappings, assassinations, armed clashes, roadside bombs and other brutal terrorist attacks,” al-Mashhadani said.

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