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Sunni leaders say offensive unfairly targets their neighborhoods

BAGHDAD, Iraq—A campaign against insurgents by Iraqi forces has sparked a backlash from some of the country's Sunni Muslim leaders and could complicate efforts to enlist more Sunnis in running Iraq's new government, drafting a democratic constitution and battling the insurgency.

Iraqi officials last week described Operation Lightning as a one-week offensive by 40,000 Iraqi security forces along with U.S. troops that would cordon Baghdad and sweep out insurgents. On Friday, with the operation still under way, Sunni leaders said their neighborhoods have been unfairly targeted.

Members of the three largest Sunni parties—the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Association of Muslim Scholars and the Sunni Endowment—condemned Operation Lightning, saying the largely Shiite Muslim and Kurdish Iraqi forces were concentrating on Sunni Arab parts of Baghdad.

"Our towns are surrounded, our people are detained and our worshippers cannot reach the mosques because of this bad operation," said Sheik Ayad al Ezi of the Iraqi Islamic Party, who led a sermon at a joint prayer service.

Bruska Noori Shaways, the secretary general of the Iraqi Defense Ministry, said security personnel were forced to take the war to local neighborhoods—even to some mosques—because the insurgency was largely Sunni and hid among residents in Sunni neighborhoods.

"Of course, we are going to first of all concentrate on those areas," Shaways said.

Government officials acknowledge that the police and security forces don't have the intelligence they need to conduct precise sweeps in Sunni neighborhoods. When they do dragnets, innocent residents get caught up, discouraging Sunnis from embracing the new government and driving some of them toward the insurgency.

"The government should concentrate on building national trust between the people and the security forces in order to achieve cooperation. But the security forces are sabotaging this relationship through their random raids," said Hazim Ali, a political science professor at Baghdad University. "If they use excessive force, it will lead to excessive violence. So far, it has not solved any problems."

The sweep of Baghdad, which U.S. Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called "an important signpost" on the way to assessing what the newly trained Iraqi forces can do, hasn't gone according to the plan the Iraqi government announced more than a week ago.

Knight Ridder correspondents found all 23 routes leading out of the city were never closed and new checkpoints were manned sporadically and could be avoided. It's unclear whether all of the 40,000 police and military forces the government planned to use took part. And the only neighborhoods that encountered a heavy police presence were Sunni-dominated.

Where fighting took place, it was intense. Residents in the Sunni neighborhood of Amariyah said insurgents shot in the air along residential streets, warning people to stay inside, then fought the Iraqi forces.

The assessment by residents, particularly those in the most troubled areas, was mixed.

In the Sunni neighborhood of Dora, Hussein Ali Chabas, a 19-year-old street vendor, said he hadn't seen any difference.

"The Iraqi soldiers are just good at shooting in the air and shouting loudly to terrify people. They are supposed to protect those people," Chabas said.

Munther Mohammed, 36, an ice cream-shop owner, said he used to close his shop early, fearing kidnapping. But this week, he's been open late.

"I'm feeling much safer," Mohammed said. The security forces "successfully stopped the car-bomb explosions in this area."

The government said it hadn't finished compiling its statistics, but it appeared that attacks in Baghdad dropped this week, although attacks outside the capital rose.

Bayan Jabr, the interior minister, said Friday that security personnel had killed 28 terrorists and arrested more than 800 others.

In addition, the government said the operation so far had yielded better intelligence and had allowed Iraqi security forces to lead an operation for the first time, rather than relying on the Americans.

The operation will last at least another two months, government officials said. Officials will make arrests, gather intelligence from those arrests and conduct raids based on what that intelligence yields, Defense Ministry official Shaways said.

"The government understands that it is not fighting an organized army. It is fighting persistent terrorists that have an ideology and faith," said Mohammed Askari, a Defense Ministry spokesman. "This is an intelligence war."

The Shiites and Kurds—the Kurds are Sunni but not Arab—won the majority of seats in the Jan. 30 parliamentary elections, wresting government authority from the Sunni Arabs, who ruled Iraq during Saddam Hussein's regime. Although they boycotted that election, the Sunni Arabs have said since then that they've been left out of the new political process.

According to the interim constitution, the new government's chief responsibility is to draft a permanent governing document by Aug. 15. All sects have said the process must be inclusive, regardless of a sect's political leverage.

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(Special correspondents Yasser Salihee, Shatha al Awsy and Mohammed al Dulaimy contributed to this story.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Iraq

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