- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 17, 2005

BAGHDAD — U.S. troops backed by attack helicopters clashed with militants in a Mosul neighborhood yesterday, killing 20, the military and Iraqi officials said. In Baghdad, gunmen killed a Shi’ite Muslim cleric, and two missing Sunni clerics were found fatally shot, police said.

The killings of the clerics threatened to increase sectarian tensions in Iraq a day after the government vowed to crack down on anyone targeting Shi’ites or Sunnis. The defense minister said Iraqi troops no longer would be allowed to enter houses of worship or universities.

“I am hearing that Iraqi National Guards are raiding mosques and Shi’ite town houses,” Defense Minister Saadoun al-Duleimi said Monday. “We have issued orders to all units that say it is strictly prohibited to all members of the defense ministry to raid mosques, Shi’ite town houses and churches.”

Those orders follow a call by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for greater inclusion of Sunnis in Iraq’s political process. Militants belonging to the disaffected Sunni Arab minority are thought to be driving the insurgency, and respect for mosques is a sensitive issue.

Yesterday, U.S. troops and militants clashed in the northern city of Mosul, and heavy exchanges of machine-gun fire were heard, said an Associated Press reporter at the scene.

U.S. forces were seen advancing into the eastern neighborhood of Dhubbat, a known insurgent stronghold in Iraq’s third-largest city. The city has suffered well-organized attacks by insurgents and dozens of deadly car bombs in past months.

U.S. military spokesman Sgt. John H. Franzen said American troops came under fire while investigating reports that a homemade bomb had been planted in the area.

“Forces were attacked and called in helicopters to support them in the battle with insurgents,” Sgt. Franzen said.

Amid the violence, Iran’s foreign minister arrived in Baghdad to pledge his country’s support for Iraq’s reconstruction.

“Our support to the Iraqi government and people will not be considered interference in Iraq’s affairs,” Kamal Kharrazi said through a translator after meeting with Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari.

Mr. Zebari, a Kurd, said militants have crossed the Iraq-Iran border, “but we are not saying that they are approved by the Iranian government.”

Mr. Kharrazi also was to meet with Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a fellow Shi’ite.

In an Internet statement, a group claiming to be al Qaeda in Iraq criticized Miss Rice’s weekend visit to Iraq and her calls to include Sunni Arabs in the political process.

The statement, posted on a Web site that has carried similar communiques, said Miss Rice was not welcome in Iraq and had “desecrated” its land.

“The hag wants the participation of the apostates and secularists who are claiming to be Sunnis,” the statement said of Miss Rice. “You should know that [the Sunni] way is fighting you.”

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