Iraqi government releases Fallujah’s top negotiator
Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – The top Fallujah negotiator in peace talks with the government dashed hopes of resuming talks soon despite his release Monday by U.S. and Iraqi authorities, saying negotiations remain suspended.
In Baghdad, a car bomb exploded late Sunday near a police patrol in the fashionable Jadiriyah district, killing six people, including three police officers, and wounding 26 others.
The attack came a day after insurgents ambushed and killed nine Iraqi policemen returning home from a training course in Jordan – the latest strikes in an insurgent campaign against Iraq’s new police force, which is seen as collaborating with the U.S.-backed government.
The American death toll in the Iraq war reached a grim milestone this weekend: 1,100. The crash of two Army helicopters Saturday raised the toll to 1,097 service members and three civilians working for the military. The Associated Press count includes accidental and non-combat deaths.
Meanwhile, Iraqi officials said a cash-for-weapons program for Shiite fighters in Baghdad’s Sadr City and other locations was extended until Tuesday.
In Fallujah, Sheik Khaled al-Jumeili said peace talks to end the standoff in Iraq’s major insurgent bastion will remain suspended as a protest against his detention by U.S. troops, who had accused him of representing the militants.
“The fact is that I’m negotiating on behalf of Fallujah people – civilians, kids, women – who have no power but through being represented by somebody. Since the situation has got up to this, each can go wherever they want and we don’t need to talk about negotiations,” he said in an interview on Al-Arabiya TV.
Al-Jumeili told The Associated Press from his home that he and three others were detained by U.S. troops on Friday. Witnesses said the Islamic cleric had been picked up after he left a mosque following prayers in a village about 10 miles south of Fallujah.
Al-Jumeili said the four men were taken to a Marine base outside Fallujah and then transported by helicopter to another location.
During his detention, al-Jumeili said he was treated well by the Americans and was not handcuffed or blindfolded like his companions. The other three men have not been released, he said.
The Interior Ministry said al-Jumeili was being released on the orders of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.
Al-Jumeili said he was exhausted from his ordeal.
“I would like to tell all Iraqis that spies follow them everywhere and they must be vigilant,” he said.
U.S. forces have been waging days of air and ground assaults in the insurgent bastion of Fallujah, targeting key planning centers of Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his group Tawhid and Jihad, which has claimed responsibility for numerous suicide bombings and hostage beheadings, including those of Americans.
On Sunday, an Internet statement from Tawhid and Jihad claimed allegiance to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, saying it would follow bin Laden’s orders from now on.
Allawi demanded Wednesday that Fallujah leaders turn over al-Zarqawi, who is believed to be in the area, or face military action.
The latest attacks began Thursday after Fallujah clerics rejected the “impossible” demand to turn over the terrorist leader, insisting that al-Zarqawi was not in the city. Fallujah fell under control of radical clerics and their armed mujahedeen fighters after U.S. Marines lifted their three-week siege of the city in April.
On Sunday, the crackle of automatic-weapons fire and the thud of artillery echoed across Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, as fighting between American troops and insurgents raged on the city’s eastern and southern edges, witnesses said.
Clashes blocked the main road leading to Baghdad, and plumes of smoke rose above the flat-roofed houses in the city’s Askari and Shuhada neighborhoods.
Witnesses said a Humvee burned in the eastern edge of the city, and hospital officials reported three civilians were killed. The U.S. military reported no casualties.
Sunday’s car bomb in Baghdad’s Jadiriyah district hit a cafe near al-Hussein Square late Sunday night, said spokesman Col. Adnan Abdul-Rahman. The vehicle was loaded with 1,100-1,300 pounds of explosives, he said.
Abdul-Rahman said the bomb killed six people, including three policeman. Eleven of the 26 wounded were policemen.
The cafe is in an area containing several foreign embassies and corporate offices. Brig. Peter Hutchinson, commander of Australian forces in the Middle East, said the blast occurred a few hundred yards from the Australian Embassy, though no Australian casualties were reported.
In other violence:
-Police said nine Iraqi policemen returning from training in Jordan were ambushed and killed Saturday in Latifiyah, an insurgent stronghold 25 miles south of Baghdad. The attackers escaped. Latifiyah is part of a belt of towns just south of the capital where kidnappings and ambushes are common.
-The U.S. military said two car bombs Sunday in Mosul killed six Iraqis and wounded 19, the U.S. military said. Three of the wounded were civilian contractors, officials said.
-An Australian journalist held hostage in Baghdad for 24 hours over the weekend was released unharmed, his employers said. SBS Television said John Martinkus was kidnapped outside his hotel in Baghdad as he was about to leave Iraq, having just completed his assignment. Martinkus, who arrived Monday in Amman, Jordan, said he was “treated with respect, once they established my credentials as an independent journalist.”
Associated Press correspondent Rawya Rageh in Baghdad, Shafika Mattar in Amman, Jordan, and an AP employee in Fallujah contributed to this report.