Early blow to hopes for respite in Iraq violence

news2.jpgBAGHDAD (AP) — Sunni Arab insurgents on Saturday displayed the videotaped beheading of three men — alleged members of a Shiite death squad — signalling their determination to fight on despite the  death of Abu Mussab Zarqawi.

The videotaped brutality, posted on a militant website by Al Qaeda-linked Ansar Sunnah group, was fully as grisly as any of the scenes that Zarqawi produced during his three years at the head of the Iraqi insurgency.

The video was clearly designed to dash hopes among Iraqis that the Sunni-dominated insurgency might change tactics by ending attacks on Shiite civilians and institutions — the police especially. Other Sunni insurgent groups sent their condolences for Zarqawi in separate Internet messages Saturday and warned Sunnis not to cooperate with the Iraqi government, in what appeared to be a call for unity after the death of Al Qaeda leader.

The condolence statements came from Ansar Sunnah and the head of the Mujahedeen Shura Council, an umbrella organisation of five insurgent groups — including Al Qaeda in Iraq — which Zarqawi helped found last year.

“Iraq is the front defence line for Islam and Muslims, so don’t fail to follow the path of the mujahedeen [holy warriors], the caravan of martyrs and the faithful,” said Abdullah Ben Rashid Baghdadi, the Shura Council’s head.

He then vowed, “as for you the slaves of the cross [coalition forces], the grandsons of Ibn Alqami [Shiites], and every infidel of the Sunnis, we can’t wait to sever your necks with our swords.” Violence on Saturday, meanwhile, left at least 24 people killed and nearly 50 injured nationwide. While such numbers are not high by the standards of recent months, the sectarian component of the attacks is significant given the intense speculation on the insurgency’s future direction in the wake of Zarqawi’s death.

They included an incident on a highway near Baghdad where gunmen stopped a minivan carrying Sunni passengers, ordered them off and opened fire, killing four and wounding one. In Baghdad, gunmen in two cars shot dead a Shiite metal worker and wounded two others, while in Mosul, in northern Iraq, gunmen killed three Shiite butchers.

Another suspected sectarian attack took place in the mainly Shiite Karadah area in downtown Baghdad, when a roadside bomb targeting a police patrol killed four and wounded 27.

Until his death in a US air strike Wednesday, the Jordanian-born Zarqawi had been the defining face of the insurgency. His tirades against Iraq’s majority Shiites and calls on the once-dominant minority Sunni Arabs to rise up and kill them were matched by the killing of thousands of Shiites in attacks.

In contrast, Ansar Sunnah, another Sunni group made up mainly of homegrown Iraqi guerrillas, has largely refrained from killing civilians, going instead after US and Iraqi forces as well as Iraqis and foreigners employed by the US military.

The latest video, however, is the first known footage of beheadings to be posted by any insurgent group in months.

Its timing may also be significant: Making it clear to the US and Iraqi governments that there will be no change in tactics now that Zarqawi is gone.

Beside the grisly scenes of militants cutting off the three men’s heads as they chant “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is Great,” what was said on the 15-minute footage paints a disturbing picture of the depth and deadliness of Shiite-Sunni rivalry in today’s Iraq.

It showed the three in military uniform, sitting on the ground with their hands bound behind their backs in a small concrete room with gunmen standing around them. Under questioning, they said they were members of the “Wolf Brigade,” a special police commando unit which Sunnis accuse of being a front for Shiite militiamen who kill Sunni Arabs.

A screen in the video said the three were members of a “Shiite death squad” that it said kidnapped and killed Sunnis at checkpoints south of Baghdad in March and April.

It said they were among 10 members of the security forces captured by Ansar Sunnah last month.

The militant interrogating the three from behind the camera asked them about the incident and other alleged slayings of Sunnis. The men replied in low voices, looking terrified. One could barely speak, only stared with his mouth hanging open.

“They [the Sunnis] were beheaded by those who took and detained them,” one of the three said. After their confessions were extracted, the three were shown laying on the ground outdoors, and the camera capturing a militant sharpening a knife before he, with the help of others, cut off the men’s heads, one by one.

At the end of the tape, the group warned Iraqis against joining the security forces, “Otherwise, you will live in terror until we eliminate you and your fate will be in Hell.” Iraqi and US leaders have acknowledged that Zarqawi’s killing was not likely to stop the insurgency, now in its fourth year, but they hope that it would rob his supporters of an iconic figure around which they rallied.

The US military has moved quickly to take advantage of the power vacuum left by Zarqawi’s death, carrying out at least 56 raids since Wednesday’s air strike that pulverised his hideout in a remote village northwest of Baghdad with two 225-kilogramme bombs.

A search of the destroyed safehouse yielded documents and electronic storage devices that are being assessed for potential use against his followers, a US military officer has said.

They also found documents and unspecified “media,” which the officer indicated normally means information storage devices such as computer hard drives and digital cameras.

The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because the search results have not been formally announced.

New AP Television News footage showed a pillow with a floral pattern, sandals and a bag scattered among the debris of concrete blocks and twisted steel.

Beside Zarqawi, three men, two women and a girl estimated between the ages of five and seven were killed in the airstrike.

A foam mattress also had its covering torn off, and a piece of a gold curtain with brown trim, a red blanket and other pieces of cloth were caught on the blocks. An air conditioner and part of a washing machine also could be seen in the area. Ripening pomegranates hung from a tree left standing nearby. Pieces of women’s clothing also were found in the rubble.

US military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said 39 raids were conducted across Iraq late Thursday and early Friday, including some directly related to the information they obtained from the strike against Zarqawi. That was in addition to 17 raids carried out immediately after Zarqawi was killed.

The US military in Baghdad declined to say whether more raids occurred Saturday. 

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