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Scores Die as Iraq Suffers Another Bloody Day

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

In Iraq, the battle between Shiite and Sunni continues apace, and Americans are now fighting both. Today, an apparent suicide bombing near a northern base used jointly by U.S. and Iraqi forces appears to have killed more than a dozen people. That attack on an Army recruiting center nearby is typical of Sunni insurgents trying to undermine the new government. That follows a U.S.-Iraqi raid yesterday that killed at least 16 followers of the Shiite Muslim cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.

It was the most serious clash in months, a clash that could inflame the already volatile political situation there. And, it's already led the Shiite governor of Baghdad to suspend all cooperation with U.S. forces until an independent investigation is launched. Joining us now is Anne Garrels in Baghdad. And Anne, what happened to create this breach between the U.S. military and the Shiite-led government?

ANNE GARRELS reporting:

This has been an incredibly confusing raid. There have been contradictory and confusing statements, even more so then usual, from the very beginning. First, U.S. officials say American Special Forces were at the site of the raid only in an advisory capacity. Iraqi officials dispute this. A U.S. military statement says Iraqi Special Forces targeted what it simply calls an objective, not saying it was actually a Shiite mosque compound. The statement actually pointedly says no mosque was entered. However, Iraqi police and eyewitnesses dispute this, saying the assault was, in fact, on a Shiite hussainia. That's a prayer hall that's, in fact, the Shiite equivalent of a mosque. What is particularly curious about this whole raid is that the U.S. military will not say outright the assault was on members of Sadr's militia, only calling the targets insurgents and terrorists.

Privately, however, officials confirm they had tips the Medhi Army was using the compound for interrogations and executions, and they say publicly, a hostage was found, as well as weapons and the makings of deadly, roadside bombs.

MONTAGNE: Well, Muqtada al-Sadr has plenty of political clout as well. Is that why the U.S. is being so coy about this particular raid?

GARRELS: I think that's absolutely close to the case. This is highly explosive. This raid implicates Sadr's militia in kidnappings, killings, torture, and roadside bombs. Sadr, long and outspoken opponent of the U.S. presence in Iraq, is a potent political force here, now. He's a key part of the dominant Shiite coalition. U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has been pressing Iraqi leaders to deal with the militias like the Mechti Army, which he blames now for much of the sectarian violence. Shiites, though, increasingly believe Khalilzad is taking sides against them, that he's blaming Shiites for everything that's going wrong while Sunni armed groups have long been killing Shiites. And Shiites also accuse Khalilzad of trying to undermine the gain Shiites made in the elections by insisting that Sunnis get key positions in a new government of national unity.

You know, there's been a big turnaround here, of late. Sunnis who once saw the Americans as their foes now see the Americans as their defenders, and the Shiites are increasingly suspicious of the Americans.

MONTAGNE: There was a suicide bombing, amidst other violence in Iraq today. What can you tell us about that?

GARRELS: Well, we hadn't seen much, something like this, presumably Sunni attack on Iraqi troops like this in a while. And, in the meantime, sectarian violence continues. At least 60 more bodies have turned up in Baghdad, nine with ropes around their necks, the typical portrait now: handcuffed, blindfolded, no I.D.s. A minibus was attacked in Baghdad, Shiite, Sadr City, and that's going to quite possibly stir up passions even more. And a clarification on reports yesterday, that 30 bodies were found beheaded north of Baghdad. In fact, only 18 people were found killed. They were all Shiites. Three cars pulled up, gunmen attacked them. And this is just going to reinforce Shiite charges that the U.S. is ignoring the killings of Shiites, which have been going on for months and months, focusing instead on the reprisal killings against Sunnis.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much. NPR's Anne Garrels, speaking from Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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