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Iraq Sunni tribal leaders pledge support for Shi'ite PM

By Mussab Al-Khairalla and Peter Graff 37 minutes ago

Sunni tribal leaders who have vowed to drive al Qaeda out of Iraq's most restive province met the Shi'ite premier on Wednesday, marking what Washington hopes will be a breakthrough alliance against militants.

Sattar al-Buzayi, a Sunni sheikh from Anbar province who has emerged in recent weeks as a leader of a tribal alliance against Osama bin Laden's followers, said he and about 15 other sheikhs had offered their cooperation to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

"We agreed to cooperate," Buzayi told Reuters. "We haven't agreed to anything specific, but we agreed to cooperate."

Maliki's office issued a statement praising the chiefs for their commitment to fighting the militants.

"This is admired and respected by all Iraqis. We are fully prepared to back your efforts," the prime minister said.

It was the first time Maliki had met the sheikhs since they pledged to fight al Qaeda in a meeting at Buzayi's compound in Ramadi, the provincial capital, two weeks ago.

Al Qaeda's Iraq branch has seized control of towns and villages throughout the Euphrates river valley along the 250 km (180 miles) from Falluja, near Baghdad, to the Syrian border.

But their strict interpretation of Sunni Islam and violent rule has alienated traditional-minded Sunni Muslims, including groups that have supported the insurgency against U.S. forces.

The United States says its 30,000 troops in Anbar -- by far the deadliest province for U.S. forces in Iraq -- cannot defeat the insurgency on their own. Senior commanders say they have been delighted by recent developments in Ramadi.

Buzayi confirmed that U.S. and Iraqi forces had killed a senior al Qaeda figure in Anbar on Tuesday. Khalid Ibrahim Mahal has been described as Qaeda's "emir" in the province although the organization's precise leadership structure is murky.

"He was a very important figure for al Qaeda and getting rid of him was for the best," Buzayi told Reuters.

Iraqi journalists for Reuters in Ramadi say another figure named Zuhair, seen as a key Qaeda militant and known locally as "The Butcher of Anbar," was killed by tribal gunmen in a car as he walked in one of Ramadi's main commercial streets on Monday.


Elsewhere in Iraq, U.S. forces drew Sunni anger after eight people including four women died during a raid on a house in Baquba in Diyala province, another extremely volatile area.

The U.S. military said it had called in air strikes when people in the house refused commands in Arabic to stop shooting. It said civilian deaths in the raid were "unfortunate."

U.S. commanders have described Diyala province as "the perfect storm," where Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish armed groups are all competing for power among a very mixed population.

In Baghdad, a car bomb near a market in the mainly Shi'ite Bayaa district in the south of the capital killed five people and wounded eight.

The area is near a district where police commandos clashed with gunmen at a Sunni mosque on Tuesday. The Iraqi military said seven militants died and three were wounded in the battle.

U.S. forces have focused their security efforts on the capital Baghdad over the past two months, launching Operation Together Forward to control scattered neighborhoods and clear them of militants.

The Americans say they have reduced violence, especially execution-style sectarian death squad murders, in the neighborhoods where they operate.

But violence in the city as a whole does not seem to have ebbed, and military spokesman Major General William Caldwell acknowledged that killers may be moving out of neighborhoods as Americans enter them.

"There's definitely a downturn in the amount of murders and executions that have occurred, without question, when we have gone in those areas. And we do not have a direct correlation that they have gone down because of the number of people detained and killed by security forces.

"So we think that in fact there is movement that does occur."

(Reporting by Reuters staff in Ramadi and Peter Graff and Mussab Al-Khairalla in Baghdad)

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