U.S. forces were back patrolling the streets of the predominantly Shiite town of Balad on Tuesday after a shocking five days of sectarian violence in which nearly 100 died. American and Iraqi officials said the bloodletting in Balad had eased, although some violence continued.
For example, unidentified gunmen in police uniforms hijacked 13 civilian cars with their occupants at Sayed Gharib checkpoint about four miles outside Balad on Monday night, an officer at the Salahuddin provincial police headquarters said.
The officer said the incident took place after police had left the checkpoint for the evening. He said he had been told those abducted had been taken to nearby area, but there was no further word on their fate. The officer spoke only on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to media.
The head of Iraq's security commission angrily accused the government of failing to resolve the crisis. Residents also blamed American forces — there is a base located right next door to Balad — for failing to intervene. But U.S. officials said they couldn't act until asked by Iraqi officials, reports CBS News chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan.
As the violence had raged over the weekend, the American military initially said it had not been asked for help. By Monday, the military indicated some involvement but issued only a vague statement. The final and more definitive but still imprecise description of U.S. involvement was issued by Tuesday.
"By coordinating all of our efforts, we have seen a marked decrease in violence in the past 24 hours," said Lt. Col. Jeffery Martindale, commander of 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division. U.S. forces were also firing back at insurgents launching mortar attacks on civilians in the area, he said.
Iraqi deaths are running at a high rate. According to an Associated Press count, 708 Iraqis have been reported killed in war-related violence this month, or just more than 44 per day, compared to a daily average of more than 27 since the AP began tracking deaths in April 2005.
In other developments:
Martindale also said U.S. troops detained a pair of Iraqi police officers in the neighboring Sunni town of Duluiyah. The men were suspected of being involved in the slaying of 17 Shiite Muslim workers last week that sparked a wave of revenge killings by Shiite militiamen, Martindale said.
That announcement reflects claims that local security forces have aided both sides in the sectarian fighting. Sunnis fleeing Balad, some by boat across the Tigris River to Duluiyah said Shiite police in the city had teamed up with death squads who killed at least 74 Sunnis.
Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Iraqi parliament's security committee, said Balad was being blockaded to prevent more fighters from entering.
"There are still painful incidents in there," said al-Amiri, a key member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, Iraq's main Shiite religious party.
Balad police commander Brig. Nebil Al-Beldawi said about 40 mortar rounds had landed on the city overnight, killing four people and wounding 13. Two fuel trucks were set on fire on the city's outskirts, while militants dressed in black uniforms were blocking the fuel and food deliveries into Duluiyah.
The U.S. Army's 25th Infantry Division handed over responsibility for security in Balad and surrounding Salahuddin province to Iraq's 4th Army Division last month — possibly explaining what appeared to be a delayed response to the fighting despite the presence next door of sprawling Camp Anadonda.
The handover helped facilitate a redeployment of U.S. forces to Baghdad to boost security in the capital, where deadly bombings and shootings continue to be a daily occurrence.
The two-month-old Baghdad crackdown, codenamed Operation Together Forward, has cleared more than 95,000 buildings and mosques, resulting in the detention of 214 terrorist suspects and seizure of 1,700 weapons, the military said. More than 7,443,856 cubic feet of trash has also been cleared from Baghdad streets over that period, it said.
Still, fighting outside the capital remains heavy: U.S. troops killed three suspected insurgents in fighting on Monday in Ramadi, deep in the Sunni heartland west of Baghdad, the military said.