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Sectarian Rhetoric Flies In Baghdad

A prominent Sunni Arab group charged Friday that some officials in the Iraqi government have links with Shiite militias involved in sectarian violence and said authorities should be held responsible for any attacks by the armed groups.

The Iraqi government said the group's claims were false and could incite rebellion.

A Sunni clerical group, the Association of Muslim Scholars, said it had obtained information that militias were planning to attack neighborhoods in Baghdad, in line with bloody assaults this year pitting members of Iraq's majority Shiites against Sunni Arabs who dominated the country under Saddam Hussein.

"We also have come to know that some officials in this government know of this criminal scheme, which raises suspicions that they are collaborating with these militias," the association said.

"The Association of Muslim Scholars holds the current Iraqi government and the occupation forces responsible for any injustice against Iraqi people," said the group, which is believed to have links to the Sunni Arab-led insurgency fighting government and U.S.-led forces.

A significant portion of the Iraqi national police is believed to be aligned with militias, and U.S. officials have said efforts are under way to weed out corrupt security agents.

The office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the Sunni group's statement was wrong.

"What has been written in the statement of the Association of Muslim Scholars is absolutely incorrect and it could provoke sedition," al-Maliki's office said. "We hold the association responsible for anything that could happen as a result of this."

In other developments:

  • An Associated Press employee has been killed in Iraq. The 28-year-old messenger and occasional cameraman, Ahmed Hadi Naji, was found shot in the back of the head today, six days after he was last seen on his way to work in Baghdad. He's the fourth AP staffer to die violently in the Iraq war — and the second AP employee killed in less than a month. He leaves a wife and 4-month-old twins. The circumstances of the slaying remain unclear. Dozens of Iraqis are found killed almost every day in Baghdad, many believed to be victims of sectarian death squads.
  • Democratic leaders sent a letter to President Bush Friday opposing a surge in troop levels in Iraq. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged the president to begin pulling troops out of Iraq in four to six months, and to begin shifting the mission of U.S. forces there from combat to training and logistical support of the Iraqis.
  • Iraqi forces backed by U.S. troops will begin a neighborhood-by-neighborhood assault on militants in the capital this weekend as a first step in the new White House strategy to contain Sunni insurgents and Shiite death squads, key advisers to the prime minister said Friday. One point of contention has been the Iraqi leader's repeated refusal of U.S. demands to crush the militia of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, one of the prime minister's most powerful backers. Sami al-Askari, an al-Maliki political adviser, told The Associated Press on Friday that al-Maliki had not acquiesced to the reported White House plan to send as many as 9,000 more U.S. troops to Baghdad alone, and has continued to press for a rapid U.S. withdrawal from the capital to bases "on the outskirts of Baghdad," al-Askari said.
  • Police in the southern city of Basra reported that an American civilian and two Iraqis were abducted Friday, according to Voices of Iraq, an independent news agency. The U.S. Embassy said it was investigating the report.
  • French President Jacques Chirac said the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq destabilized the entire Middle East and caused terrorism to spread, adding that the problems in Iraq justified France's strong opposition to the war. "As France foresaw and feared, the war in Iraq caused upheavals whose effects have not yet finished unraveling," Chirac said Friday in his New Year's message to French ambassadors.
  • Mortar rounds killed four civilians on the outskirts of Baghdad on Friday. The mortar attack occurred in the Shiite neighborhood of Zaafaraniyah, nine miles southeast of the center of the Iraqi capital, a police officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media. The attack killed four civilians and injured eleven, he said.
  • Gunmen attacked an Iraqi army checkpoint north of the capital, killing four soldiers. The Iraqi soldiers were killed at dawn at a checkpoint in Duluiyah, 45 miles north of Baghdad, according to the joint operations office of Salahuddin province. Three other soldiers were injured.
  • Clashes broke out between Sunni Arab and Shiite militants in Baghdad's mixed western Amil district, minutes after a mortar round hit a house in a Sunni neighborhood, injuring five civilians, police said. One Shiite militiaman was killed and three others were wounded. The fighting ended when U.S. and Iraqi forces rushed to the area, according to police.
  • Police agents from the Interior Ministry detained three Iraqi insurgents linked to al Qaeda during a raid in Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad, police Capt. Muthana Khalid said. Separately, Iraqi troops captured four murder suspects in an operation Wednesday in Sadr City, a poor Shiite area in eastern Baghdad where militias have a strong presence, the U.S. military said. The suspects were believed to be "leaders of a kidnapping and murder cell responsible for the deaths of Iraqi civilians," and were suspected of directing mortar attacks linked to Baghdad's sectarian war, the military said.
  • President Bush said Thursday he wished the execution of Saddam Hussein "had gone in a more dignified way." After conferring with Iraq's prime minister, Bush also said he will make a speech next week announcing his decisions about how to proceed with the nearly 4-year-old war.
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