Attacks prompt vehicle ban in Iraqi city

( AP ) - Iraqi authorities ordered a one-day vehicle ban in Baqouba on Friday in response to a series of deadly suicide bombings and other attacks by al-Qaida in Iraq against predominantly Sunni fighters that have allied with the United States.

The U.S. military also stepped up operations against al-Qaida cells and networks in Diyala province, of which Baqouba is the capital.

The U.S. military announced it had killed a local leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Muhammad Khalil Ibrahim, during a Dec. 28 airstrike in Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of Baghdad, in an area known as the "Triangle of Death" just south of Baghdad.

Baqouba police chief Brig. Hasan al Obaidi said the ban was imposed because of the "increased violent events during last week." The ban in the city about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad also aimed to protect worshippers going to mosques for Friday prayers. It was to last until late afternoon.

A series of suicide attacks have targeted members of the burgeoning Sunni tribal movement, including one attack in downtown Baqouba on Wednesday that police said killed seven people; the U.S. military said four people died.

The attacks intensified after a Dec. 29 message from Osama bin Laden warning Iraq's Sunni Arabs against joining the U.S.-funded groups fighting al-Qaida.

The overwhelmingly Sunni groups are known as Awakening Councils in some areas, and as "concerned local citizens" by the U.S. military in others. Iraqis used the general term "Sahwa," or awakening, to describe all of them. There are more than 70,000 men in about 300 such groups being bankrolled by the U.S. around Iraq, and the number is expected to grow.

The groups have been credited with playing an important role in reducing violence by 60 percent around the country in the past six months.

They have also helped push al-Qaida out of Anbar province, just as the inflow of thousands of U.S. troops pushed insurgents north of Baghdad. Most are thought to have sought shelter in the northeast Diyala river valley region and around the town of Muqdadiyah.

The U.S. military said Friday it had killed two insurgents and detained 12 in that area. But the operations also resulted in the deaths of two American soldiers the wounding of another in a small arms attack on Thursday in Diyala, the military said.

One of those captured included an alleged leader of Ansar al-Sunna, a terror group affiliated with al-Qaida, the military said. The statement did not identify him by name, but said he had escaped from a hospital, killing five policemen, after being injured in a previous Iraqi operation.

The U.S. military wants the anti-al-Qaida groups to eventually be integrated, with about a quarter joining the Iraqi security forces and the rest entering the civilian work force.

But the Shiite-dominated government is uneasy about the potential for the Sunni fighters to switch sides again.

One such tension point has been Baghdad's Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah, where fighting broke out Wednesday and Thursday between one such group led by Abu Abed and Iraqi security forces.

Abed, who leads the biggest group in Azamiyah, told The Associated Press that the U.S. military had for the time being accepted a demand that Iraqi security forces withdraw from the inner part of the neighborhood to its edge.

"We insist that security in the district should be handed over to the awakening and that no soldier of the (Iraqi) national guard should be in the district streets or alleys," he said.

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