Ellen Knickmeyer and Omar Fekeiki:
U.S. warplanes bombed alleged safe houses being used by Abu Musab Zarqawi's insurgent group near the Syrian border Tuesday during what one local leader called an unprecedented push by a Sunni Arab tribe to drive out Zarqawi's foreign-led forces.It is amazing what you can find it when you call a source who is involved in the fighting. You wonder why no other reporters thought about it. It is clear that Zarqawi has lost the battle for the hearts and minds of at least one of the most important Sunni tribes that is at the choke point of his lines of communication with the outside jihadi network. Even if he surivies for a while this is going to make it that much harder for him to make war. Congratulations to the Washington Post for finally reporting on these important events.
The bombings occurred along the Euphrates River in two towns that U.S. officials and Iraqis describe as havens and transit points for insurgents moving weapons, money and recruits into Iraq from Syria. Ali Rawi, an emergency room director in the border city of Qaim, said at least 56 people -- the majority of them apparently followers of Zarqawi -- were killed in Tuesday's airstrikes and ground fighting. Zarqawi's group, al Qaeda in Iraq, said in a statement posted in local mosques that it had lost 17 men.
Neither U.S. nor Iraqi officials gave death tolls.
The clashes between Sunni Arab tribes and insurgents, coupled with growing vows by Iraq's Sunni minority to turn out in force for national voting in the coming months, coincided with U.S. hopes for defusing the two-year-old insurgency. U.S. military leaders have repeatedly expressed optimism that public anger at insurgent violence would deprive insurgents of their base of support.
A tribal leader near the Syrian border, Muhammed Mahallawi, said his Albu Mahal tribe began the latest fighting against Zarqawi's insurgents after they kidnapped and killed 31 members of his tribe to punish them for joining the Iraqi security forces.
"We decided either we force them out of the city or we kill them," with the support of U.S. bombing, Mahallawi said by telephone.
Sunni Arab tribes in the western province of Anbar have clashed sporadically with Zarqawi's organization since at least May, usually in revenge for killings of tribe members accused of collaborating with U.S. forces or the Iraqi government. This month in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, tribes took up arms to block Zarqawi's group from enforcing his ultimatum for all Shiite Muslim families to leave the city. Fighting there killed several fighters on both sides.
Local officials said Tuesday that Mahallawi's tribe and the insurgents had been fighting near the border for at least three days. Rawi, the emergency room director, said at least 61 people had been killed since the fighting began. The majority of the dead Tuesday were in the Western-style clothes and athletic shoes often worn by Zarqawi's fighters, Rawi said.
Residents said one of the airstrikes hit a weapons cache, setting off explosions in the house. Another targeted building was a former clinic that had been taken over by Zarqawi, residents said.
...The fighting comes as Iraq's Sunni Arabs are registering to vote in large numbers -- a sharp turnaround from January, when threats by insurgents and calls for boycotts led Sunnis to largely stay out of elections that seated Iraq's National Assembly.