BAGHDAD, Iraq—The U.S. military has sent troops to the Iraqi city of Balad and the surrounding area to help re-establish order after Iraqi troops and police were unable to quell a surge of violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims over the weekend that left at least 57 people dead.
Confirmation that American troops have been sent back to Balad came as Iraq's bloodletting continued. At least 700 Iraqis have been killed so far this month nationwide, according to numbers provided by police in Iraq's largest provinces. In addition, 58 U.S. soldiers have died so far this month, a trend that if it continues will make October one of the deadliest months for Americans since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.
The decision to send American troops into Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad, was another setback for U.S. hopes that Iraqi forces will be able to take control of security for the country. Violence has increased steadily throughout Iraq despite an increase of tens of thousands of American-trained Iraqi soldiers and police, and U.S. officials concede that their strategy of training Iraqi troops to replace Americans hasn't worked.
U.S. authorities had turned over responsibility for Balad's security to the 3rd Battalion, 1st Brigade, 4th Iraqi Army Division, in April.
American forces began returning to the city Saturday and are patrolling there, though it was unclear Tuesday whether Balad and the surrounding area have been pacified.
U.S. Lt. Col. Jeffrey Martindale, the commander of the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, said in a statement released Tuesday that his troops were patrolling alongside Iraqis in Balad. "By coordinating all of our efforts, we have seen a marked decrease in violence in the past 24 hours," the statement quoted Martindale as saying.
Residents, however, said that Balad and the nearby town of al Dulyiyah remained under the control of armed groups that had targeted the residents and may have killed as many as 100 in four days of violence.
The violence in Balad and al Dulyiyah underscores how explosive the rivalry between Iraq's Sunni and Shiite communities has become and how ineffective Iraqi security forces often are. Residents said some Iraqi police officers had contributed to the slaughter.
Balad is populated primarily by Shiites. Sunnis, however, are the dominant sect in the province, Salah al Din, whose capital, Tikrit, is the birthplace of Saddam Hussein. Samarra, where an explosion Feb. 22 devastated the sacred Shiite Askariya shrine, is in Salah al Din. The shrine bombing touched off Iraq's current sectarian bloodletting.
Accounts of what took place over the weekend vary, with residents, Iraqi police and American officials giving differing numbers of dead.
U.S. officials say the violence began last Friday when gunmen kidnapped at least 19 Shiites in Balad and murdered them. On Saturday, according to the American account, gunmen seized 38 people in the Sunni town of al Dulyiyah, exactly double the number of Shiites killed the day earlier. Their bodies later were dumped in Balad.
Two U.S. military officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak on the subject, tied Friday's kidnappings and murders to the trial of Saddam Hussein on charges that he ordered the killings of 148 Shiite residents of Dujail after an assassination attempt against him in 1982. Dujail and Balad have Salah al Din's only significant concentrations of Shiites.
What happened after Saturday's kidnappings and murders is unclear. Residents say that as many as 100 Sunnis were killed around Balad as Shiite militias took control of the region. American officials said they couldn't confirm that figure.
Residents said Shiite police commanders were involved in some of the killings and that U.S. forces, several thousand of whom are based at nearby Camp Anaconda, made no effort to stop the bloodshed.
So far, American and Iraqi forces have detained two Iraqi police officers allegedly involved in the killings of the Sunnis from al Dulyiyah, Martindale said.
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Hassan al Jubouri in Tikrit, Iraq, contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.