BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraqi forces backed by U.S. soldiers and Marines raided mosques Tuesday in the insurgent stronghold of Ramadi and detained a prominent cleric following fierce clashes that hospital officials said killed at least four people.
U.S. aircraft also rocketed a mosque northwest of Ramadi on Monday after insurgents opened fire from there on U.S. Marines, the command said.
The seven mosques targeted in Ramadi are suspected of supporting insurgents through a range of activities, including harboring terrorists, storing illegal weapons caches, promoting violence and encouraging insurgent recruitment, the U.S. command said.
Sheikh Abdul-Aleim Saadi, the provincial leader of the influential Association of Muslim Scholars, was detained at Mohammed Aref Mosque, his relatives and followers said.
Angry residents accused Americans of disrespecting the sanctity of city mosques.
“This cowboy behavior cannot be accepted,” said cleric Abdullah Abu Omar of the Ramadi Mosque. “The Americans seem to have lost their senses and have gone out of control.”
The 1st Marine Division said the raids followed a pattern of insurgent activity in and around Ramadi mosques in recent weeks.
“The 1st Marine Division respects the religious and cultural significance represented by mosques,” it said in a statement. “However, when insurgents violate the sanctity of the mosque by using the structure for military purposes, the site loses its protective status.”
The participation of American Marines and soldiers in the raids was limited to supporting Iraqi security forces, said Brig. Gen. Joseph Dunford, assistant division commander of the 1st Marine Division.
The raids followed two days of clashes in the city, a Sunni militant stronghold 70 miles west of Baghdad. Insurgents fired two mortars at the city hall and neighboring police directorate Monday night, sparking gunfire and rocket-propelled grenade exchanges, residents said.
Three policemen and a civilian were killed, said Dr. Dhia Abdul-Karim, at the city hospital.
U.S. forces have also clashes with insurgents holed up in mosques in other areas.
On Monday, U.S. aircraft attacked a mosque in the nearby town of Hit and set it on fire after insurgents hiding in the shrine opened fire on American Marines, the U.S. military said.
In Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, insurgents opened fire from a mosque after a car bomb exploded in front of a U.S. convoy, the military said. One U.S. soldier was killed and nine were wounded, the U.S. command said. City hospitals reported at least two Iraqis killed and 18 wounded.
U.S. and Iraqi forces are trying to clamp down on rebel enclaves in time to hold nationwide elections in January.
On Tuesday, Turkey’s foreign minister confirmed that 10 Turks abducted last month in Iraq (news – web sites) had been freed. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said 10 employees of the Turkish construction company VINSAN were released and that their families were notified of their release.
“They are in good health, they were not treated badly, they’re very happy to be released,” Ali Haydar Veziroglu, VINSAN chairman of the board, told private NTV television by telephone from Baghdad.
Al-Jazeera television had reported the release of the 10 hostages on Sunday but Gul’s announcement was the first confirmation that they were free. The Ankara-based construction company announced in late September that it was halting operations in Iraq.
In insurgent-held Fallujah, U.S. warplanes struck twice early Tuesday, destroying a popular restaurant and a house which the U.S. command said were used by members of Iraq’s most feared terrorist organization. At least five people were killed and two wounded, the city hospital said.
A 12:01 a.m. blast destroyed the Haj Hussein restaurant as well as nearby shops, residents said. The restaurant was closed at the time, but two night guards were killed said Dr. Ahmed Thaer from Fallujah General Hospital.
The U.S. military command in Baghdad made no mention of the restaurant but said the target was used as a meeting place for the Tawhid and Jihad terror network, led by Jordanian-born extremist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
“Following the engagement, secondary explosions were reported, indicating the strong likelihood of weapons caches and explosive devices,” the statement said. “Terrorists frequently planned operations from this location.”
The second blast occurred at 4:02 a.m. and flattened a building in northeastern Fallujah which the U.S. command said was a known terrorist safehouse. Intelligence sources confirmed that al-Zarqawi associates were using the building at the time of the strike, a military statement said.
At least three people were killed and two wounded in the blast, Thaer said.
Al-Zarqawi’s network has claimed responsibility for numerous car bombings, kidnappings and beheadings of foreign hostages, including American businessman Nicholas Berg, South Korean translator Kim Sung-il, British civil engineer Kenneth Bigley and U.S. engineers Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley.
U.S. commanders say weeks of air and ground strikes in Fallujah have inflicted serious damage to al-Zarqawi’s network.
Tuesday’s strikes were the first since Oct. 6. The Iraqi government has reported progress in negotiations to restore control over the city 40 miles west of Baghdad.
The latest violence came a day after Shiite fighters in Baghdad’s Sadr City slum unloaded cars full of machine guns, mortars and land mines as a five-day, weapons-for-cash disarmament program got started.
A lasting peace in the sprawling slum would allow U.S. and Iraqi forces to focus on the mounting Sunni insurgency in Fallujah, Ramadi and elsewhere. Underscoring the threat, two American soldiers were killed in a rocket attack in another part of the capital Monday.
In Sadr City, followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr promised the government last weekend they would hand over medium and heavy weapons for cash in a deal considered an important step toward ending weeks of fighting with U.S. and Iraqi forces. Iraqi police and National Guardsmen will then assume security responsibility for the district.