At least 17 die in gun battle near Iraq's Samarra

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BAGHDAD, Nov 10 (Reuters) At least 17 people were killed in clashes between al Qaeda gunmen and a rival insurgent group in two villages near the Iraqi city of Samarra, a police source and villagers said today.

Gun battles between al Qaeda and the Islamic Army, a Sunni Arab nationalist group, broke out last evening in the remote villages of al-Julam and Benat al-Hassan near Samarra, 100 km north of Baghdad, and ended early today.

The villages were former al Qaeda strongholds but villagers, many of them Islamic Army fighters, combined to drive out the Sunni Islamist group.

A police source in Samarra said 17 al Qaeda fighters were killed, as well as 15 Islamic Army fighters and villagers.

An Islamic Army source in one of the villages, who asked not to be identified, also said 17 al Qaeda fighters had been killed but denied any of his men had died.

He said 18 al Qaeda fighters, some of them wounded, had also been captured but would be released if al Qaeda left the area.

''We are negotiating with al Qaeda, but on condition that they leave this area,'' he told Reuters.

The Samarra police source said no Iraqi or US security forces were involved in the gun battles.

Similar clashes between al Qaeda and the Islamic Army near ancient Samarra last month killed 16 militants.

Al Qaeda has faced growing pressure, and has been moving into other areas of Iraq, since Sunni Arab tribal sheikhs started forming neighbourhood police units last year to drive them out of western Anbar province, once the most dangerous area of Iraq.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis have since signed up to similar ''concerned citizens'' neighbourhood groups across Iraq.

A US troop build-up of 30,000 extra troops, which began in February and was completed in June, has targeted al Qaeda and Shi'ite militias in Baghdad and other centres.

The extra troops are part of a US military strategy aimed at quelling sectarian violence in which tens of thousands of Iraqis have died. The bloodshed erupted after a Shi'ite shrine in predominantly Sunni Arab Samarra was bombed in February 2006.

REUTERS SZ RAI1805

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