18 dead in battle between al-Qaida, Sunni forces

BAGHDAD — Al-Qaida militants commandeered Iraqi army vehicles and then attacked U.S.-backed Sunni fighters in south Baghdad during a fierce gunbattle that left 18 people dead Thursday, police and local Sunnis said.

Later Thursday, mortars or rockets slammed into the U.S.-protected Green Zone — dramatizing warnings by senior American commanders that extremists still pose a threat to Iraq’s fragile security despite the downturn in violence.

The gunbattle began before dawn when al-Qaida militants killed three Iraqi soldiers and seized two Humvees in the rural area of Hawr Rijab on the southern rim of the capital, according to a police report.

Militants then drove the Humvees to the nearby headquarters of the local Awakening Council — Sunnis who have turned against al-Qaida in Iraq. The assailants opened fire on the headquarters with rifles and machine guns from the Humvees, the report said.

U.S. Kiowa Warrior helicopters joined the fight, blasting a van that was transporting a machine gun and mortar tube, the U.S. military said. An F-16 jet dropped a 500-pound bomb and destroyed the vehicle as al-Qaida broke off the attack, the U.S. said, adding that two insurgents were killed.

The dead included eight members of the U.S.-backed group and seven al-Qaida suspects in addition to the three Iraqi soldiers, according to police and local Sunni leaders.

Television news footage showed Iraqi police and soldiers forming a protective cordon around wailing women and children as they loaded wooden coffins onto the cars for funeral processions of those killed.

Shortly before sunset, a series of rockets or mortars crashed into the Green Zone, sending up plumes of smoke into the sky as the sounds of the detonations reverberated through the center of the city.

The attack, the biggest against the Green Zone in weeks, occurred as many Americans were celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday. Loudspeakers in the Green Zone warned people to “duck and cover” and to stay away from windows. Maj. Brad Leighton, a U.S. spokesman, said there were no fatalities but some people were wounded.

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