Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Iraq: Troubled northern regions flare up as Shiites gather in the south

BAGHDAD - Insurgents targeted passenger buses north of Baghdad, as a suicide bomber killed at least eight people west of Mosul and gunmen seized 21 men traveling through Diyala province.

The latest bloodshed on Tuesday highlighted the slow-going, punch-counterpunch U.S.-led campaign against al-Qaida in Iraq, more than a month after Iraq's prime minister said he expected the fight for Mosul would be a "decisive battle."

The Americans view the northern campaign as a chance to subdue al-Qaida in Iraq in areas surrounding Mosul, a major transportation hub which the military has described as the terror group's last urban stronghold.

Tuesday's bombing, 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Mosul, struck a bus heading from that city to the Syrian capital of Damascus.

Al-Qaida is believed to use the cover of sprawling sheep and produce markets in Mosul to smuggle foreign fighters, weapons and cash from Syria. Mosul, the country's third-largest city, lies some 80 miles (130 kilometers) east of the Syrian border and 225 miles (362 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad.

Farther north, Turkish officials said Tuesday their troops pressed an incursion deeper into Iraq, as they chased separatist Kurdish rebels as much as 12 miles (19 kilometers) across that border. Fed-up Iraqi leaders demanded that Turkey end the military operation, and the regional parliament in Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish area unanimously approved a measure authorizing its military forces to fight back if attacked by Turks.

The south, however, was relatively calm. There, millions of black-clad pilgrims clogged the streets of Karbala for the peak of an annual religious commemoration for a revered Shiite figure. A nationwide pilgrimage to the city was marred by attacks earlier in the week that killed at least 63 people.

Violence has rattled much of the northern region in recent days.

The U.S. military said it killed seven al-Qaida in Iraq members and captured three insurgents during a firefight Monday east of the town of Khan Bani Saad, near the Diyala provincial capital of Baqouba. Three soldiers were wounded, it said.

Elsewhere in Diyala, police said gunmen in civilian clothes stopped two buses at a fake checkpoint on a highway in the Adeim area, 45 miles (72 kilometers) north of Baqouba, then took the buses and kidnapped 21 men. They later released three women, said an officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information..............

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