BAGHDAD, Oct. 16 — 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, is 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, in stark form, to show the dilemma for American military commanders at a time when they are hastening the transfer of wide areas of the country to Iraqi forces. They are also 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 appeared to kill 22 people. The American military, meanwhile, said Monday that five American service members were killed Sunday, bringing the toll 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 Interior Ministry, in charge of Iraq’s police forces, and the Iraqi government in general, said Lt. Col. Michael Donnelly, a spokesman for the military's northern command in Iraq, adding that responsibility for the Balad area was transferred from American military units to the Fourth Iraqi Army about a month ago.
The job of the United States military in Balad, 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 happened over the weekend concluded that the situation in Balad was best dealt with by the Iraqi armed forces, a senior American 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 Nuri 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.
The American military eventually provided what Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a military spokesman, described as "quick reaction force assistance" to the Iraqi Army and the police in the area.
"We were waiting for a request from the Iraqi government," he said.
It was unclear, however, when that request came. The sectarian killings began on Friday in the neighboring town of Dhuluiya, where the decapitated bodies of 14 Shiite workers from Balad were found. While the center of Balad is mostly Shiite, its outskirts and the neighboring area, including Dhuluiya, are overwhelmingly Sunni.
By the following day, groups of Shiite gunmen from Balad were setting up checkpoints and hunting down and killing dozens of Sunni Arab residents, the authorities said.
Overall, the bodies of some 31 Sunni Arab residents of the area were found during the weekend, said Qasim al-Qaisi, the director of Balad Hospital. Most of the killings took place on Saturday, the authorities said.
American troops did not arrive until late Sunday afternoon, taking up positions in the town center and on its outskirts, said Hamad al-Qaisi, governor of Salahuddin Province. By then, a curfew had been imposed on the town and the situation had mostly stabilized.
On Monday mortar rounds landed on Balad, injuring five civilians, a police official said. Otherwise, the town was mostly quiet. Shiite clerics broadcast appeals over loudspeakers for calm on Monday, urging residents not to attack their Sunni neighbors, residents said. The leader of one mosque even urged any Sunnis harmed in any attacks to visit the mosque and register a complaint, said a resident who asked not to be identified.
A meeting between the provincial governor, security officials, American commanders and tribal sheiks in Balad and Dhuluiya will be held Wednesday to discuss ways to defuse tensions in the area, a provincial government official said.
At least 60 Sunni families have fled Balad for neighboring Dhuluiya, said Adel al-Smaidaei, a representative of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the country’s leading Sunni political party.
The burst of violence in Balad, which had previously only dealt with relatively low levels of sectarian tension, came as American troops were continuing the largest series of sweeps in the nation’s capital since the invasion, in an attempt to stop sectarian bloodshed. Over the past year, American forces had gradually withdrawn from large areas of the capital, leaving security in the hands of the Iraqi Army and the police.
That policy, however, was followed by unhindered sectarian bloodletting, particularly after a bombing of a sacred Shiite shrine in Samarra in February, which prompted the American military command to move troops back to the capital.
The police in Baghdad reported the discovery of the 64 bodies, all of which appeared to have been shot at close range and showed signs of torture. In the largely Shiite neighborhood of Ur, two car bombs, one of which was aimed at a large Shiite funeral gathering, exploded almost simultaneously Monday evening, an Interior Ministry official said. The other bomb went off nearby, about 200 meters from a busy market.
At least 22 people were killed and 31 people wounded in the blasts, said Qasim al-Sweidi, an official at Imam Ali Hospital in nearby Sadr City, where the victims were taken.
Earlier in the day, a car bomb exploded in Suwayra, a neighborhood located southeast of Baghdad, killing 10 people and wounding 15 others, the official said.
The day’s toll in Baghdad included another killing, at least the 12th of its kind, of a victim linked to the court trying Saddam Hussein and his associates. Court officials said that the older brother of Munkith al-Faroun, chief prosecutor in the so-called Anfal trial that began in Baghdad in August, was shot dead by unknown assailants at his home in the western Baghdad suburb of Jamaa.
The officials said the brother, Emad al-Faroun, who is a legal adviser to Ahmad Chalabi, one of the most prominent Iraqi politicians in the period since the overthrow of Mr. Hussein, was killed by men who attacked him in the carport of his home. His wife and son, also shot in the attack, survived, the officials said.
On Monday, Mr. Hussein’s lawyers made public a letter they said they had been given by Mr. Hussein during a weekend consultation at Camp Cropper, the American-run detention center near the Baghdad airport, where he has been held during the trials.
Mr. Hussein used the letter to call on Iraqis to end the current wave of sectarian bloodletting and to focus attacks instead on "occupiers from far away who crossed the Atlantic Ocean under the inspiration of Zionism." He added, "You should remember that your goal is to liberate your country from the invader’s forces and their followers, and that there should be no other issues to distract you from this goal."
Reporting was contributed by Omar al-Neami, Hosham Hussein, Ali Adeeb, John F. Burns and Sabrina Tavernise.
From Healing Iraq
UPDATE ON BALAD: The Shi'ite town of Balad and the Sunni town of Dhilu'iya are in war with each other. And guess who Interior Ministry Commandoes in Balad are siding with? Mahdi militiamen and weapons in pickups have poured into Balad from Kadhimiya, Baghdad. How they were able to cross the road between Baghdad and Balad, which is controlled by US and Iraqi army forces, is a mystery. Take a look at the map. (The green dots are American army bases and the white line is the highway that Mahdi militias used to get to Balad from Baghdad.)