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Sunni power struggle is eyed in Iraq

Some are irate over brutality of Al Qaeda

A soldier frisked a resident yesterday at a checkpoint in Baghdad. In May, at least 125 US troops were killed in Iraq. (Mahmoud Raouf Mahmoud /Reuters)

BAGHDAD -- An Al Qaeda-linked suicide bomber struck a safe house occupied by an insurgent group that has turned against the terror network. Yesterday's attack northeast of Baghdad killed two other militants, police said, the latest sign that an internal Sunni power struggle is spreading.

The US military also said at least 125 American troops were killed in Iraq in May, making it the third-deadliest month for US forces since the war began more than four years ago.

May was also the third-deadliest for Iraqis since the Associated Press began tracking civilian casualties in April 2005. At least 2,155 Iraqis were killed last month, according to the AP count. The government figure put the number at 2,123, according to officials at the Interior Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

The explosion in Baqubah came as Iraqi and US troops fanned out in the Sunni stronghold of Amariyah in the capital, enforcing an indefinite curfew after heavily armed residents clashed with Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters, apparently fed up with the group's brutal tactics.

"Al Qaeda fighters and leaders have completely destroyed Amariyah," said Abu Ahmed, a 40-year-old Sunni father of four who said he joined in the clashes. "No one can venture out, and all the businesses are closed. They kill everyone who criticizes them and is against their acts even if they are Sunnis."

Other residents, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution, said the clashes began after Al Qaeda militants abducted and tortured Sunnis from the area. That prompted a large number of residents, including many members of the rival Islamic Army armed with guns and rocket-propelled grenades, to rise up against the terror network. US forces joined them in the fighting on Wednesday and Thursday.

Ahmed denied being a member of any insurgent group but said he sympathizes with "honest Iraqi resistance," referring to those opposed both to US-led efforts in Iraq and to the tactics of Al Qaeda.

With the insurgency appearing increasingly fragmented, Iraqi officials congratulated Amariyah residents for confronting Al Qaeda.

"Government security forces are now in control of the Amariyah district," Iraqi military spokesman Qassim al-Moussawi was quoted as saying by Iraqi state TV. He also lauded "the cooperation of local residents with the government."

US and Iraqi officials have claimed recent success in the effort to isolate Al Qaeda, particularly in the western Anbar province, where many Sunni tribes have banded together to fight the terror network.

A growing number of Sunni tribes have reportedly been turning against Al Qaeda elsewhere as well, repelled by the terror network's sheer brutality and austere religious extremism.

The extremists also are competing with nationalist groups for influence and control over diminishing territory in the face of US assaults, a situation exacerbated by the influx of Sunni fighters to areas outside the capital as they flee a security crackdown.

But the clashes in Amariyah appeared to be the fiercest fighting between Sunni groups in the capital.

"I think this is happening because of Al Qaeda's brutality," said Ehsan Ahrari, professor and counterterrorism specialist at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. "They have been hurting the Sunni population in Iraq and that is coming back to hurt Al Qaeda."

"The event itself is significant because it looks like the US is making some breakthrough in terms of establishing consensus with the Sunni population," he said. "Of course we have to hold our breath and see, but this is important."

The explosion in Baqubah, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, came as residents said Al Qaeda is trying to regain control of the Tahrir neighborhood from the 1920 Revolution Brigades, a group composed of officials and soldiers from the ousted regime who have allied themselves with local security forces against the terror network.