- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 2, 2007

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s Kurdish region faced dual threats yesterday as saboteurs bombed a vital bridge to Baghdad in the south, and Turkish troops across the border massed for a possible strike.

“We won’t allow it to be turned into a battleground,” Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said yesterday of the relatively peaceful Iraqi north, a haven for anti-Turkish, Kurdish guerrillas.

In Iraq’s center, sectarian violence between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims raged on.

Hours of mortar barrages killed eight persons in a Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad surrounded by Shi’ites, and a prominent Sunni cleric was gunned down on the street.

A series of explosions also were heard in the capital late yesterday, and state-run Iraqiya television reported that U.S. warplanes were bombarding a Shi’ite area on the edge of the Mahdi Army militia stronghold of Sadr City.

The U.S. military, which has been searching for five British citizens in the area, said it was looking into the report.

The U.S. casualty toll mounted for May, the third-deadliest month for Americans in the four-year-old war: A soldier wounded in a roadside bomb blast in Baghdad on Wednesday was reported to have died of his wounds, raising the month’s death toll to at least 127.

Tensions have heightened in recent weeks in northern Iraq as Turkey has built up its military forces on Iraq’s border, a move clearly meant to pressure Iraq to rein in the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, separatists who launch raids into southeast Turkey’s Kurdish region from hideouts in Iraq.

Turkey’s political and military leaders have been debating whether to try to root out those bases, and they set up a buffer zone across the frontier. Turkey’s military chief said Thursday the army was ready and only awaiting orders for a cross-border offensive.

In an interview taped for broadcast yesterday on ABC-TV’s “This Week,” Iraq’s Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, said Iraqi leaders had convinced the Iraq-based militants to cease their attacks, “and they did it.”

Mr. al-Maliki, the Shi’ite prime minister, also sought to ease the growing tensions.

“If there are some problems, we should not rely on weapons and threats, or use violence and power because this will increase tension and deepen problems,” he told a press conference in the regional Kurdish capital of Irbil.

Some 90 miles to the south, a bomb heavily damaged the Sarhat Bridge, a key crossing on a major road connecting Baghdad with Irbil and other Kurdish cities of the north, police reported.

The attack appeared to be the latest by insurgents who have tried to cripple vital Iraqi supply arteries.

Small cars could still cross the damaged Sarhat span, with difficulty, but trucks were being rerouted through areas of Diyala province that are among the most active in the anti-government, anti-U.S. insurgency, said police Brig. Sarhat Qadir.

The Baghdad mortar barrages slammed into Fadhil, a Sunni enclave in the Shi’ite-dominated eastern half of the city. The sporadic attacks began at 1:30 a.m. and lasted until 7 a.m., damaging five houses, killing eight persons and wounding 25, police said.

In western Baghdad, a well-known Sunni cleric, Ali Khudir al-Zind, was killed in a drive-by shooting as he walked near his home, police said.

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