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American and Iraqi Forces Strive to Maintain Peace After Violent Weekend

By Michael Luo
THE NEW YORK TIMES


BAGHDAD, IRAQ

American military units joined with Iraqi forces on Monday in maintaining a fragile peace between Sunni and Shiite communities in Balad, a rural town north of the capital where an explosion of sectarian violence over the weekend left dozens dead.

In the aftermath of the reprisals, some residents of Balad asked why American troops had not intervened when the killings began in earnest on Saturday. One of the largest American military bases in Iraq, Camp Anaconda, which includes a sprawling air base that serves as the logistical hub of the war effort, is located nearby.

“People are bewildered because of the weak response by the Americans,” said one Balad resident who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals. “They used to patrol the city every day, but when the violence started we didn’t see any sign of them.”

The situation in Balad, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, appears to have presented in stark form the dilemma for American military commanders at a time when they are hastening the handover of wide areas of the country to Iraqi forces and insisting that those troops take the lead in quelling violence, leaving American forces to step in only when asked. It also highlighted yet again the powerlessness of the Iraqi forces to stand in the way of such sectarian violence.

Killings also continued to besiege the capital on Monday with the discovery of at least 64 bodies across the city, and two car bomb attacks that killed about 22 people. The American military, meanwhile, reported the deaths on Sunday of five American service members, bringing the toll so far this month to 58. One soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad, two died in Kirkuk Province and two in Salahuddin province.

Sectarian violence and retribution killings of the kind that unfolded in Balad over the weekend are the purview of the Ministry of Interior, in charge of Iraq’s police forces, and the Iraqi government in general, said Lt. Col. Michael Donnelly, a spokesman for the Army’s 4th Infantry Division, adding that responsibility for the Balad area was transferred from American military units to the 4th Iraqi Army about a month ago.

The U.S. military’s job, he said, is to work “by, through and with” its Iraqi counterparts “to build further capacity to reduce the violence, and bring about stability.”

American military commanders reviewing what had happened over the weekend concluded the situation in Balad was best dealt with by Iraqi armed forces, a senior military official said.

The senior officer, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the subject, said that American commanders viewed the upheaval in Balad as a new test for the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, who has come under American pressure to crack down on militias that have been responsible for much of the killing in the country.