Iraqi forces, backed by U.S. soldiers, stormed one of the major Sunni Muslim mosques in Baghdad after Friday prayers, opening fire and killing at least three people, witnesses said. Another raid overnight at a hospital allegedly used by insurgents in Mosul led to three arrests, the military said.
About 40 people were arrested at the Abu Hanifa mosque in the capital's northwestern Azamiyah neighborhood, according to the witnesses, who were members of the congregation. Another five people were wounded.
It appeared the raid at Abu Hanifa mosque, long associated with anti-American activity, was part of the crackdown on Sunni clerical militants launched in parallel with military operations against the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah.
On Thursday, the Iraqi government warned that Islamic clerics who incite violence will be considered as "participating in terrorism." A number of them already have been arrested, including several members of the Sunni clerical Association of Muslim Scholars which spoke out against the U.S.-led offensive against Fallujah.
"The government is determined to pursue those who incite acts of violence. A number of mosques' clerics who have publicly called for taking the path of violence have been arrested and will be legally tried," said Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's spokesman, Thair al-Naqeeb.
U.S. troops were seen securing the outer perimeter of the mosque area and sealing it off. Some American soldiers also were seen inside the compound.
Witnesses heard explosions coming from inside the mosque, apparently from stun grenades. Inside the office of the imam, books and a computer were found scattered on the floor, and the furniture was turned upside down.
At least 10 U.S. armored vehicles were parked in front of the mosque, along with two vehicles carrying about 40 Iraqi National Guards, witnesses said.
Abu Hanifa mosque has long been associated with anti-American agitation and support for the former regime. Saddam Hussein was seen in the area as the city fell to American forces in April 2003, and U.S. Marines fought a fierce gunbattle with Saddam loyalists around the mosque on April 10, 2003, the day after the ousted ruler's statue was hauled down in Firdous Square.
The raid on the al-Zaharawi hospital in Mosul was conducted by Iraqi commandos with the Ministry of the Interior's Special Police Force, backed by U.S. troops.
Forces cordoned it off after getting information that insurgents were treating their wounded there, said Lt. Col. Paul Hastings with Task Force Olympia.
U.S. forces from the 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment secured the area around the hospital, while Iraqi troops raided the building, detaining three individuals suspected of terrorist activities.
Pictures were taken of 23 bodies in the morgue believed to have been members of a terrorist cell, Hastings said, adding it was unclear how they got there.
"You can call it an insurgent hospital from what we found there," he said.
U.S. and Iraqi forces began a major military operation Tuesday to wrest control of the western part of Mosul after gunmen last week attacked police stations, bridges and political offices in apparent support of Fallujah guerrillas.
On Friday, three of the city's five bridges were reopened to traffic and most of the city remained calm, though U.S. forces came under some "indirect fire" that caused no injuries, Hastings said.
In Fallujah, battles flared as troops hunted holdout insurgents, and one U.S. Marine and one Iraqi soldier were killed, U.S. officials said.
U.S. troops sweeping through the city west of Baghdad found what appeared to be a key command center of terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, along with a separate workshop where an SUV registered in Texas was being converted into a car bomb and a classroom containing flight plans and instructions on shooting down planes.
The vehicle was surrounded by several bags of sodium nitrate, which can be used to make explosives. The vehicle had no license plate, but 15 plates were inside. Several bodies were found nearby.
The U.S. troops came across a large house with a sign in Arabic that said "Al-Qaida Organization," according to footage from a CNN crew embedded with the U.S. Army.
Inside the house, an imposing structure with concrete columns, U.S. soldiers found documents, old computers, notebooks, photographs and copies of the Quran. Several bodies also were found.
There also were two letters, one from al-Zarqawi giving instructions to two of his lieutenants. Another sought money and help from the terrorist leader.
Iraqi authorities have acknowledged that al-Zarqawi and other insurgent leaders escaped the invasion of Fallujah.
Lt. Gen. John Sattler, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said those who fled lack the resources available in their former stronghold.
"We feel right now that we have, as I mentioned, broken the back of the insurgency. We've taken away this safe haven," he said at a base outside Fallujah.
The U.S. casualty toll in the Fallujah offensive stood at 51 dead and about 425 wounded. An estimated 1,200 insurgents have been killed, with about 1,025 enemy fighters detained, the military says.
Al-Zarqawi's group, Al-Qaida in Iraq, is considered the deadliest terrorist network in the country and is blamed for dozens of deadly car bombings and for the kidnappings and beheadings of foreign hostages, including three Americans. Al-Zarqawi is wanted by both Jordan and the United States, and Washington has offered $25 million for information leading to his capture.
U.S. and Iraqi authorities launched the Fallujah operation as part of a campaign to restore order so national elections can be held in January.
The extremist Ansar al-Sunnah Army, in a statement found Thursday on the Internet, threatened to attack polling stations and assassinate candidates because democracy is an "infidel" institution.
Iraqi authorities, meanwhile, said they arrested 104 suspected insurgents in a raid in Baghdad, including nine who had fled Fallujah.
Insurgents, though, struck back elsewhere in volatile Sunni Muslim areas. In Haditha, northwest of Fallujah, militants blew up the mayor's office and the police command center. Leaflets distributed by insurgents warned anyone who "wears a police uniform or reports to a police station will be killed."
Car bombs in Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk killed at least four people, while mortar shells that exploded near the governor's office in Mosul wounded four guards, officials said.