BAGHDAD — The American military says three Iraqi civilians who wandered into the middle of a U.S.-Iraqi mortar training exercise have been killed.
The military says the men were herding cattle Saturday at about noon near a training range north of Baghdad when they were hit by mortars. An 11-year-old boy was injured and is in stable condition.
The military says it was conducting a live-fire training exercise with Iraqis near Taji, 12 miles (20 kilometers) north of Baghdad.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.
BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s prime minister said Saturday that insurgents will likely intensify their attacks in the run-up to January national elections in an attempt to destroy national unity and political stability.
A flurry of recent bombings has sparked fears that insurgents could re-ignite the sectarian fighting that nearly tore the country apart two years ago, while also raising questions about the ability of Iraqi security forces to maintain stability.
“Terrorists are increasing their attacks here and there because they recognize that we are about to have a political breakthrough,” Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told Shiite tribal members during a meeting in Baghdad.
“We have taken big steps during a difficult period, and there are still more steps to take to overcome the remaining obstacles,” he said.
Al-Maliki warned Iraqis there would be “decisive battles” with insurgents in the months leading up to the January elections when Iraqis will cast ballots for the 275-member parliament and prime minister.
Al-Maliki, a Shiite, has campaigned for re-election largely on the dramatic decline in violence in the last two years.
But Iraq has suffered a series of deadly bombings in recent weeks, marking the worst violence since the U.S. military turned security of cities over to Iraqi troops on June 30. More than 150 people have been killed and hundreds more wounded in the attacks, primarily in Baghdad and in northern Iraq.
The deadliest attacks have been in and around the city of Mosul, which the U.S. military calls the last urban stronghold of al-Qaida.
Some Iraqi politicians have suggesting delaying the upcoming elections, with the hope of increasing their chances of successfully challenging al-Maliki’s party. But the prime minister has opposed a delay.
Al-Maliki was unanimously re-elected as the head of the Dawa Party on Saturday, solidifying his leadership of the group ahead of the elections, said Sadiq al-Rikabi, a close aide to the prime minister.
In northern Iraq, U.S. Sen. John McCain and Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani met to discuss the upcoming elections, said a Kurdish government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the meeting.
McCain, a Republican from Arizona, is in Iraq leading a congressional delegation.
U.S. military commanders have said tensions between Iraq’s Arabs and Kurdish minority pose a greater long-term threat to the country’s stability than the current insurgency. The two groups have long been at odds over claims on oil and land within Iraq.
President Barack Obama has urged al-Maliki to be more flexible about sharing power and reconciling the country’s rival ethnic and religious groups, an issue that taken on new urgency with all U.S. troops scheduled to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011.
Despite the recent attacks, security forces Saturday removed concrete blast walls from a major road in northern Baghdad’s primarily Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah, a former al-Qaida stronghold, as part of plan to remove most of the barriers by mid-September to ease congestion and improve the appearance of streets.
Azamiyah residents were often the victims of retaliatory mortar attacks by Shiite militants following bombings blamed on Sunni insurgents in 2006 and 2007. The neighborhood was one of the first in Baghdad to have a concrete wall built around it to protect it from attacks.
It is unclear when perimeter walls like the ones around Azamiyah will come down.
Also Saturday, Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi said he supported giving Iraqi journalists the right to work without fear of being sued. The comments came a day after Iraqi journalists took to the streets in Baghdad to protest what they said were government efforts to prevent a strong independent press.
The protests were sparked in part by threats of a lawsuit against journalist Ahmed Abdul-Hussein over editorials suggesting that an unnamed political party supported a bank robbery in which nearly $7 million was stolen and eight security guards were killed.
Controversy has focused on allegation that guards for Abdul-Mahdi were involved in the heist. The vice president, who met with Abdul-Hussein on Saturday, has acknowledged one of his guards had been charged in the robbery but denied any involvement.
During the meeting, “Abdul-Mahdi expressed his support of freedom of the press and freedom of expression,” said Falah al-Mishaal, editor of al-Sabah, the newspaper where Abdul-Hussein works.
Associated Press writers Chelsea J. Carter, Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad and Yahya Barzanji in Sulaminyah contributed to this report.
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