BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraq's Kurdish president backed his Shiite allies Wednesday by openly supporting a militia that Sunni Arab leaders have accused of killing members of their minority.
Clashes in Baghdad and other attacks around Iraq killed at least eight people as the Sunni-dominated insurgency pressed on with its campaign against the Shiite-led government.
The bloody wave of violence that broke out after the April 28 announcement of Iraq's new Shiite and Kurdish dominated government has killed more than 874 people. During the spree, more than 10 Sunni and Shiite clerics have been killed in apparent tit-for-tat slayings that raised fears the country was on the verge of civil war.
Two U.S. soldiers were killed in an indirect fire attack on their military base in Tikrit, north of Baghdad, late Tuesday, while another was killed by roadside bomb north of the capital, the military said Wednesday. As of Wednesday, at least 1,679 U.S. military members have died since the Iraq war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
President Jalal Talabani's backing of the Badr Brigade came at a time when Sunni leaders have not only demanded that it be disarmed, but have complained that the militia provides intelligence and support for some Shiite-dominated special security units.
The Badr Brigade was the military wing of the country's largest Shiite political party, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Republic in Iraq, or SCIRI. The party claims the Badr Brigade is no longer a militia but performs social and political functions.
"May those who describe the heroes of Badr and their Kurdish brothers as militia be doomed to failure," Talabani, himself a Sunni Kurd, said during a conference marking the second anniversary of the Badr Brigade's transformation from a solely military body to a political one.
"You and your (Kurdish) brothers are the heroes of liberating Iraq," Talabani added. "You, my brothers, march on without paying attention to the enemies' claims because you and the (Kurdish militia) are faithful sons of this country."
There are no accurate figures on the size of the brigade, but it is thought to be smaller than the Kurdish Peshmerga militia, estimated at 100,000. The Peshmerga has been largely exempted from efforts to disband militias because of its close ties to the United States and its supporting role during the 2003 Iraq war.
Sunni criticism of Talabani's remarks was swift, with Abdul-Salam al-Qubeisi, spokesman of the influential Association of Muslim Scholars, saying Talabani was acting in line with "U.S. policies to prolong the struggle in Iraq and turn it into an Iraq-Iraq conflict."
Al-Qubeisi accused the Badr Brigade of providing intelligence to units such as the feared Wolf Brigade, an elite commando unit from the Interior Ministry that is headed by a top SCIRI member.
"We do not have problems with this party or another, we only have problems with the chasing and killing of Sunni clerics and their followers," al-Qubeisi said. "Even the militia elements who have joined the Iraqi army have been heavy-handed during army operations."
On Tuesday, Laith Kuba, spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite, told reporters that the new Iraq had "no place for militias" and that such forces could be incorporated into the police and army.
The complaints came a day after a Sunni Arab politician said two insurgent groups were willing to negotiate with the government, possibly opening a new political front in embattled Iraq.
Former electricity minister Ayham al-Samarie told The Associated Press that the Islamic Army in Iraq and the Army of Mujahedeen - or holy warriors - were ready to open talks with the Shiite-led government aimed at eventually joining the political process. The groups account for a large part of the Sunni insurgents and were responsible for attacks against Iraqis and foreigners, including assassinations and kidnappings.
The effort to begin talks comes at a delicate time for the government, criticized by Sunni Arab groups for deliberately targeting the minority in counterinsurgency campaigns such as the ongoing Operation Lighting in Baghdad.
The association said the operation, which has led to nearly 900 arrests, could spark sectarian strife. Now in its second week, the campaign involves thousands of Iraqi security forces and 7,000 U.S. troops, according to the U.S. military.
In Habaniyah, 50 miles west of Baghdad, insurgents attacked a supply convoy carrying supplies to an American base, and local reporters said they saw at least seven bodies, all of which appeared to be Iraqi men in their 20s and 30s. The U.S. military and American diplomats said they were not aware of any Americans in the convoy.
Reporters who returned to the scene early Wednesday saw an additional four bodies, which did not appear to be Iraqi. The other bodies were still there and armed men were also present at the scene.
A South African diplomat confirmed that one of his country's nationals was part of the convoy that was attacked. Mbulelo Mtilwa, first secretary of the South African Embassy in Jordan, said officials didn't know if he had been killed, captured or wounded.
In other violence Wednesday:
- Gunmen killed two industry ministry officials in a drive-by shooting in the capital's New Baghdad neighborhood.
- One police officer was killed and six injured in clashes between Iraqi police and gunmen in northwest Baghdad after gunmen attacked a police car.
- In Mosul, police Col. Nashwan Hadi was killed in a drive-by-shooting near his home. The attackers then fired a rocket at his house, injuring five people - including two children.
- An officer was shot and killed in eastern Mosul.
- A car bomb in Baqouba, northeast of Baghdad, killed two people. Gunmen also killed Mustafa Ashraf, a translator at an American base.