(LatWp) - The armed men who entered a village in Diyala province after sunset seized the residents' weapons and made a request that turned out to be an ultimatum.
``They asked us to join the Islamic State of Iraq,'' Sameer Muhammad, who lives in the village, said Sunday. ``After that, they burned the houses of those who work with the army or police.''
At least 31 houses in the predominantly Shiite neighborhood were doused with gasoline and set ablaze, said residents, who quickly fled the raging fire, leaving behind loved ones and belongings, and walked miles to find shelter.
U.S. military officials have recently described Diyala, northeast of Baghdad, as a particularly volatile part of the country. A recent surge in violence there might have been driven by an exodus of militants and insurgents from the capital, where stiffer security measures are in place.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said last week that he intends to send more U.S. troops to the province, parts of which are essentially controlled by Sunni insurgent groups.
A spokesman for the Sunni insurgent group the Islamic State of Iraq said early Monday that the group had killed 20 men suspected of being members of the Iraqi army or the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia.
``We didn't force some of the families to leave the village because they weren't cooperating with the American forces and they were trustworthy,'' said Moayed al-Obaidy, the spokesman. ``We killed only the men who were members of the army or the Mahdi Army.''
Iraqi security forces did not reach the village until after dawn Sunday.
After the fire was out, insurgents raised the flag of the Islamic State of Iraq near the gutted houses. Residents of nearby villages, perhaps fearing a similar attack, followed suit.
Sunday, violence continued unabated in other parts of the country, leaving more than 40 people dead.
A suicide bomber struck a truck in central Baghdad, killing at least 20 Shiite pilgrims returning from Karbala after observing a religious holiday, according to police. Hundreds of Shiite pilgrims on their way to and from the revered city have been killed in recent days.
Also Sunday, a U.S. soldier in a unit supporting an air assault operation in southwest Baghdad was killed in a roadside bomb attack, the military said in a statement.
Another soldier died of injuries sustained in an explosion in the northern province of Salahuddin, the military said.
A third U.S. soldier died in what the military described as a noncombat incident.
A second car bomb in the capital exploded in front of a Sunni mosque in the mainly Shiite neighborhood of Karrada, killing 11 people and injuring four, police said.
In northeastern Baghdad, a suicide bomber detonated a belt of explosives in a minibus as it neared the Shiite militia stronghold of Sadr City, killing seven passengers, the U.S. military said in a statement.
In the northern city of Kirkuk, a rocket exploded in a crowded parking garage near a hospital, killing three people and injuring 39, the U.S. military said in a statement.
Also in Kirkuk, U.S. military personnel disabled two car bombs that would-be attackers apparently planned to detonate in busy markets, the U.S. military said.
In Mosul, in northern Iraq, a suicide bomber detonated explosives in the offices of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a leading Sunni political group. Three guards and another person were killed, a party official said.
Meanwhile, President Bush urged Congress to approve funding for the war ``without any strings attached.''
He questioned pledges from Iran and Syria, made Saturday at a conference in Baghdad, to support efforts to stabilize Iraq. ``If they really want to help ... there are things for them to do, such as cutting off weapons flows and or the flow of suicide bombers into Iraq,'' he said while visiting Bogota, Colombia.