Four American and four Italian military personnel were killed in separate aircraft crashes, military officials said Tuesday, as Iraq's prime minister condemned the arrest of a top Sunni political leader by U.S. troops.
Monday's 12-hour detention of Iraqi Islamic Party leader Mohsen Abdul-Hamid did little to help American efforts to entice Iraq's once-dominant Sunni community back into the political fold. Many Sunnis feel slighted by the rise to power of the country's Shiite majority, which claimed political control following Saddam Hussein's ouster two years ago.
Iraq's raging insurgency, which has killed more than 760 people since the new Shiite-led government was announced April 28, is believed to be strongly backed by radical Sunni extremists.
Violence continued Tuesday with gunmen shooting dead Jerges Mohammed Sultan, an Iraqi journalist working for Iraqi state TV channel Al-Iraqiya, as he left his house in the northern city of Mosul, said Dr. Baha-aldin al-Bakri from al-Jumhouri hospital.
Insurgents have in the past targeted both the station, which has been mortared, and its journalists. One of its anchorwomen, Raiedah Mohammed Wageh Wazan, was kidnapped and killed in late February.
A suicide car bomber killed two Iraqi soldiers in an early morning attack on an army checkpoint near Buhriz, about 60 kilometers (35 miles) north of Baghdad, said Diyala provincial police spokesman Ali Fadhil.
On Monday, at least 27 policemen were killed and 118 wounded after two terrorists carrying explosives blew themselves up among a crowd of 500 commandos protesting a government move to disband their special forces unit in Hillah, about 95 kilometers (60 miles) south of Baghdad.
In an apparent claim of responsibility, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al-Qaida in Iraq said in an alleged Internet statement saying one of its members attacked "a group of special Iraqi forces." The same group had claimed responsibility for a Feb. 28 attack against police recruits in Hillah that killed 125 people.
Militants regard Iraqi security forces as prime targets in their campaign against the U.S. military, which hinges its eventual exit from Iraq on the ability of local soldiers and police to handle the insurgency.
The Iraqi fixed-wing aircraft crashed near the village of Jalula, about 130 kilometers (80 miles) northeast of Baghdad, said U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Fred Wellman.
It was unclear what type of aircraft it was, who was in control or why it crashed. The four Americans killed were all U.S. Air Force members and the Iraqi was a pilot, Wellman said.
The Italian AB-412 military helicopter crashed overnight killing its two Italian pilots and two gunmen, all attached to the army, about 13 kilometers (8 miles) southeast of Nasiriyah, Italian military spokesman Lt. Col. Fabio Mattiassi said Tuesday. Most of Italy's 3,000 troops are based in Nasiriyah. The cause of the crash was not immediately clear.
Some 26 Italian military personnel, including intelligence agent Nicola Calipari, have been killed in Iraq.
The arrest of Abdul-Hamid, his three sons and four guards was condemned by Iraq's president and prime minister plus the leaders of Shiite and Sunni Muslim groups.
"We condemned as early as possible (the arrest of Abdul-Hamid) ... and from now on we will confront these matters so we can be sure they won't be repeated again in the future," Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari told reporters Tuesday.
Few details were available on why the Americans arrested the Sunni leader, but it appeared to be related to the ongoing Sunni-led insurgency and fears of a broader sectarian conflict starting up.
The U.S. military acknowledged it had made a "mistake" by detaining Abdul-Hamid, a short-time leader of Iraq's dissolved U.S.-backed Governing Council whose party boycotted the Jan. 30 national elections but has recently agreed to join the country's political process.
Iraqi authorities suggested someone had planted "lies" against him in a bid to stir up "sectarian sedition." Abdul-Hamid said U.S. forces questioned him about the "current situation," an apparent reference to the wave of attacks.
The arrests came after the launch of Operation Lightning, a large-scale campaign that entered its third day Tuesday aimed at ridding Baghdad of militants and, in particular, suicide car bombers, the deadliest and regular weapon of choice for insurgents.
PAUL GARWOOD, Associated Press Writer
On the photo: Islamic Party leader Mohsen Abdul-Hamid