- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 4, 2007

BAGHDAD — Gunmen rounded up two Sunni families who had received death threats for joining U.S.-organized talks with local Shi’ites, hauling away the men and boys and killing all six yesterday in a campaign by suspected Sunni insurgents to keep opponents from cooperating with Iraq’s government.

Also, the al Qaeda-affiliated group Islamic State of Iraq posted an online video of the execution of 18 Iraqi security troops, shot in the back of their heads while kneeling in a field.

The three-minute video, posted on a Web site previously used by the Islamists, said the 18 kidnapped government security personnel were slain in retaliation for the purported rape of a Sunni woman by members of the Shi’ite-dominated police. The video’s authenticity could not be immediately verified.

The group also claimed responsibility for the deaths of 14 policemen whose bodies were found Friday in the northeast province of Diyala.

Some of the victims were decapitated, according to an Associated Press photographer. Their remains were cleansed in Muslim tradition before burial in the Shi’ite city of Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad.

U.S. forces, meanwhile, reported air strikes and raids on what they described as Sunni militant bases linked to the group al Qaeda in Iraq.

A recent wave of Sunni reprisals appears linked to increasingly high-profile attempts to stir popular momentum against Sunni terrorists and militants who are trying to drive out the Shi’ite-led government and its American backers.

Those targeted include a range of Sunnis raising their voices against violence: imams, clan-based vigilantes and activists trying to bridge deep rifts with majority Shi’ites.

“We are seeing more people beginning to challenge the insurgents,” said Marine Brig. Gen. John Allen, who oversees units in the militant heartland west of Baghdad.

The families gunned down at sunrise yesterday had received death threats for weeks after attending gatherings of Sunni and Shi’ite leaders, police said.

The first meeting, organized by U.S. military officials on Feb. 13, brought together leaders of prominent clans from both sides, said military spokesman Maj. Webster M. Wright III.

The clan chiefs held another round on their own about a week later and appointed a joint council “to discuss the terms of reconciliation” around Youssifiyah, a Sunni-dominated area about 12 miles south of Baghdad, Maj. Wright said.

At dawn, gunmen stormed the home of two families belonging to the influential Sunni Mashhada tribe, said police 1st Lt. Haider Satar. Two fathers and their four sons were separated from their wives and sisters. They were executed at point-blank range.

In the morgue in nearby Mahmoudiya, AP Television News footage showed at least two victims had their hands bound behind their backs.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, is under pressure from Washington to take a stronger stand against Sunni insurgents, as well as a Shi’ite militia that forms part of his power base.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Mr. al-Maliki said he will reshuffle his 39-seat Cabinet “either this week or next” and pursue criminal charges against political figures — and even members of parliament — linked to extremists.

He said there has been coordination between Iraqi and multinational forces from the beginning of the year “to determine who should be arrested and the reasons behind arresting them.”

The prime minister did not say how many Cabinet members would be replaced, but some officials said about nine would lose their jobs, including all six Cabinet members loyal to radical anti-American Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who leads the powerful Mahdi’s Army militia.

U.S. officials had been urging Mr. al-Maliki to cut his ties to Sheik al-Sadr and form a new alliance of mainstream Shi’ites, moderate Sunnis and Kurds.

Mr. al-Maliki has won some breathing room in recent days with a notable — but perhaps temporary — drop in bloodshed in Baghdad. It comes as a U.S.-led security crackdown concentrates on areas considered staging grounds for Sunni insurgent car bombs and mortar attacks.

The Mahdi’s Army also was strong-armed by Mr. al-Maliki to pull back. Its suspected death squads once left dozens of Sunni victims around the city — a figure that has fallen off significantly.

In western Baghdad, meanwhile, a top adviser to Iraq’s Defense Ministry was kidnapped in western Baghdad, said an aide to Adnan al-Dulaimi, a leader of the largest Sunni bloc in parliament.

In U.S. raids north of Baghdad, nine suspected insurgents were captured, including two thought to be responsible for recruiting and helping foreign militants in Baghdad, the U.S. military said. The suspects also were accused of harboring al Qaeda in Iraq leaders, it said, but gave no further details.

U.S. warplanes also struck a suspected car bomb factory in Arab Jabour, south of Baghdad, the military said. Seven suspected insurgents were killed when two precision-guided bombs destroyed the structure where they were hiding, the military said.

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