10 Sheiks Working Against "Al Qaeda in Iraq" Nabbed in Brazen Daylight Attack


Gunmen in Baghdad snatched 10 Sunni and Shiite tribal sheiks from their cars Sunday as they were heading home to Diyala province after talks with the government on fighting Al Qaeda, and at least one was later found shot to death.

The bold daylight kidnapping came as the top U.S. commander in Iraq said the threat from the terror network has been “significantly reduced" in the capital.

A suicide car bomber, meanwhile, struck a busy commercial area in the oil-rich, northern city of Kirkuk, killing at least eight people and wounding 26, police said.

The two cars carrying the sheiks - seven Sunnis and three Shiites - were ambushed in Baghdad's predominantly Shiite neighbourhood of Shaab at about 3:30 p.m., police officials said.

The sheiks were returning to Diyala province after attending a meeting with the Shiite-dominated government's adviser for tribal affairs to discuss co-ordinating efforts against Al Qaeda in Iraq, police and a relative said.

Police found the bullet-riddled body of one of the Sunni sheiks, Mishaan Hilan, about 50 metres away from where the ambush took place, an officer said, adding that the victim was identified after his cellphone was found on him.

A relative of one of the abducted Shiite sheiks, Jassim Zeidan al-Anbaqi, blamed Sunni extremists and said the attackers picked a Shiite neighbourhood to "create strife between Shiite and Sunni tribes that have united against Al Qaeda in the area."

But, he said, "this will not happen."

The well-planned attack was the latest to target anti-Al Qaeda tribal leaders and other officials in an apparent bid to intimidate them from joining the U.S.-sponsored grassroots strategy that the military says has contributed to a recent drop in violence.

Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said Sunday that the threat from Al Qaeda in several former strongholds in Baghdad has been "significantly reduced" but the group remains "a very dangerous and very lethal enemy."

He singled out success in what had been some of the most volatile Sunni neighbourhoods in Baghdad, including Ghazaliyah, Amariyah, Azamiyah and Dora.

"Having said that … Al Qaeda remains a very dangerous and very lethal enemy of Iraq," he said. "We must maintain contact with them and not allow them to establish sanctuaries or re-establish sanctuaries in places where they were before."

Petraeus said the reduced threat from Al Qaeda had given way to non-sectarian crimes - kidnapping, corruption in the oil industry and extortion.

"As the terrible extremist threat of Al Qaeda has been reduced somewhat, there is in some Iraqi neighbourhoods actually a focus on crime and on extortion that has been ongoing and kidnapping cells and what is almost a Mafia-like presence in certain areas," he said.

Petraeus made his comments after a transition ceremony as the 1st Armoured Division, which is based in Wiesbaden, Germany, assumed command of northern Iraq from the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division at Camp Speicher, a U.S. base near Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, 130 kilometres north of Baghdad.

The new commander for the region, Maj.-Gen. Mark Hertling, said the number of attacks so far in October had dropped by more than 300 from last month, although he did not provide more specific figures.

"The levels are still high in some of the northern provinces," he said. "But while they're still high … they have been decreasing significantly."

"We are in, I believe, a pursuit operation with Al Qaeda," he said, adding that attacks against local civilians and Iraqi security forces were on the rise. "They are targeting the concerned local citizens, the police stations and some of the gathering places of sheiks … specifically to try and deter the Iraqi people from moving forward."

In all, at least 35 people were killed or found dead across the country, including the decomposing bodies of 12 Shiites found near the Diyala provincial capital of Baqouba, an army officer said.

An explosives-laden car also exploded near a market in Baghdad's northern Shiite district of Kazimiyah, killing at least two civilians and wounding 10, according to local police.

The suicide bombing in Kirkuk, 290 kilometres north of Baghdad, struck a mainly Kurdish area in the city, which has seen a rise in ethnic tensions as Iraq's Kurds try to strengthen their presence there as a prelude to annexing it to their nearby self-rule region.

The city's Arab and Turkomen residents dispute the Kurdish claim.

Several cars and nearby stores and restaurants were set on fire and black smoke rose from the area as panicked people ran over bloodstained sidewalks.

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