U.S., Iraqi forces kill 60 insurgents

( AP ) - U.S. and Iraqi forces killed more than 60 insurgent and militia fighters in intense battles over the weekend, with most of the casualties believed to have been al-Qaida fighters, officials said Sunday.

The U.S. Embassy, meanwhile, joined a broad swath of Iraqi politicians - both Shiite and Sunni - in criticizing a nonbinding U.S. Senate resolution seen here as a recipe for splitting the country along sectarian and ethnic lines.

U.S. aircraft killed more than 20 al-Qaida in Iraq fighters who opened fire on an American air patrol northwest of Baghdad, the U.S. command said.

The firefight between U.S. aircraft and the insurgent fighters occurred Saturday about 17 miles northwest of the capital, the military said.

The aircraft observed about 25 al-Qaida insurgents carrying AK-47 assault rifles - one brandishing a rocket-propelled grenade - walking into a palm grove, the military said.

"Shortly after spotting the men, the aircraft were fired upon by the insurgent fighters," it said.

The military did not say what kind of aircraft were involved but the fact that the fighters opened fire suggests they were low-flying Apache helicopters. The command said more than 20 of the group were killed and four vehicles were destroyed. No Iraqi civilians or U.S. soldiers were hurt.

"Coalition forces have dealt significant blows to Al-Qaida Iraq in recent months, including the recent killing of the Tunisian head of the foreign fighter network in Iraq and the blows struck in the past 24 hours," military spokesman Col. Steven Boylan told The Associated Press.

Iraq's Defense Ministry said in an e-mail Sunday afternoon that Iraqi soldiers had killed 44 "terrorists" over the past 24 hours. The operations were centered in Salahuddin and Diyala provinces and around the city of Kirkuk, where the ministry said its soldiers had killed 40 and arrested eight. It said 52 fighters were arrested altogether.

The ministry did not further identify those killed, but use of the word "terrorists" normally indicates al-Qaida.

In a separate operation, U.S. forces killed two insurgents and detained 21 others during weekend operations "to disrupt al-Qaida in Iraq networks in the Tigris River Valley."

Intelligence led to a raid early Sunday that netted what the U.S. military called 15 rogue members of the Mahdi Army militia at an undisclosed Baghdad location.

The mainstream of the militia, the armed wing of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's organization, has been ordered by the religious leader to stop attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces.

But many one-time members of the group have split off and are acting independently of al-Sadr's control. Some have gone to Iran for training and are receiving weapons and financing from the Islamic regime in Tehran.

The Senate resolution, adopted last week, proposed reshaping Iraq according to three sectarian or ethnic territories. It calls for a limited central government with the bulk of power going to the country's Shiite, Sunni or Kurdish regions, envisioning a power-sharing agreement similar to the one that ended the 1990s war in Bosnia. Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, a Democrat presidential candidate, was a prime sponsor.

In a highly unusual statement, the U.S. Embassy said resolution would seriously hamper Iraq's future stability.

"Our goal in Iraq remains the same: a united, democratic, federal Iraq that can govern, defend, and sustain itself," the unsigned statement said.

" Iraq's leaders must and will take the lead in determining how to achieve these national aspirations. ... attempts to partition or divide Iraq by intimidation, force or other means into three separate states would produce extraordinary suffering and bloodshed," it said.

The statement came just hours after representatives of Iraq's major political parties denounced the Senate proposal.

The Kurds in three northern Iraqi provinces are running a virtually independent country within Iraq while nominally maintaining relations with Baghdad. They support a formal division, but both Sunni and Shiite Muslims have denounced the proposal.

At a news conference earlier in the day, at least nine Iraqi political parties and party blocs - both Shiite and Sunni - said the Senate resolution would diminish Iraq's sovereignty and said they would try to pass a law to ban any division of the country.

"This proposal was based on the incorrect reading and unrealistic estimations of Iraq's past, present and future," according to a statement read at a news conference by Izzat al-Shahbandar, a representative of the secular Iraqi National List.

On Friday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told The Associated Press that "dividing Iraq is a problem, and a decision like that would be a catastrophe."

Iraq's constitution lays down a federal system, allowing Shiites in the south, Kurds in the north and Sunnis in the center and west of the country to set up regions with considerable autonomous powers.

Nevertheless, ethnic and sectarian turmoil have snarled hopes of negotiating such measures, especially given deep divisions on sharing the country's vast oil resources. Oil reserves and existing fields would fall mainly into the hands of Kurds and Shiites if such a division were to occur.

Also Sunday, a judge delayed court proceedings for a second U.S. Army sniper accused in the deaths of two unarmed Iraqi civilians a day after a military panel sentenced a 22-year-old specialist to five months in prison for his role in the killings.

Jorge G. Sandoval was convicted Thursday of planting evidence on one of the unidentified Iraqis killed last spring. He was acquitted of two murder charges.

Sandoval had faced five charges in the deaths of the two unidentified Iraqi men. In dramatic testimony during the four-day court-martial, his colleague, Sgt. Evan Vela, testified he had pulled the trigger and killed one of the men Sandoval was accused of murdering.

Vela, 23, said the sniper team was following orders when it shot the men during two separate incidents near Iskandariyah, a Sunni-dominated area south of Baghdad, on April 27 and May 11.

On Sunday, a military judge postponed a pretrial hearing for Vela for at least a month. Vela's civilian defense lawyer had asked that the hearing be closed to the media because of classified information expected to be discussed.

The U.S. military also announced the death of an American soldier killed Saturday in a roadside bombing and gunfire attack in eastern Baghdad.

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