Baghdad, Iraq Iraqi security forces announced the capture of a senior al-Qaida in Iraq figure as they sought to deflect criticism of their handling of a surge of sectarian violence. The U.S. ambassador said the risk of civil war from last week's crisis was over.
Violence throughout Iraq killed 36 people Monday, as fierce fighting broke out between Iraqi commandos and insurgents southeast of the capital. But sectarian clashes have declined sharply since the bloodletting that followed the destruction of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra, and Baghdad residents returned to their jobs after three days of a government-imposed curfew.
"We were at home for three days doing nothing," tea vendor Abbas Kudir said. "We are of limited income. We earn money when people can come and buy tea normally. We hope the government will pay attention to our difficulties."
'Brink of civil war'
Sunni Arab leaders said they were prepared to end their boycott of the talks on a new government if Shiites return mosques seized in reprisal attacks against Sunnis and meet other unspecified demands.
"That crisis is over," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad declared.
"I think the country came to the brink of a civil war, but the Iraqis decided that they didn't want to go down that path, and came together," the ambassador told CNN. "Clearly the terrorists who plotted that attack wanted to provoke a civil war. It looked quite dangerous in the initial 48 hours, but I believe that the Iraqis decided to come together."
Tip leads to insurgent
The captured al-Qaida figure was identified as Abou al-Farouq, a Syrian who financed and coordinated groups working for Iraq's most wanted terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in the insurgent stronghold of Ramadi, according to an Interior Ministry officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to address the media.
Acting on a tip from residents, members of the Interior Ministry's Wolf Brigade captured al-Farouq with five other followers of al-Zarqawi near Bakr, about 100 miles west of Baghdad, the ministry officer said.
The Defense Ministry said Iraqi security forces have killed 35 insurgents and arrested 487 in raids across the country since the bombing last Wednesday of the Samarra shrine.
The speed with which sectarian attacks spread from Samarra to Baghdad and Shiite strongholds in southern Iraq raised concern about the ability of Iraq's understaffed and ill-equipped security forces to handle the crisis.
Sunni leaders accused the Shiite-dominated police and army of standing by as Shiite militiamen sprayed their mosques with machine-gun fire and took over some of them.
The Washington Post reported today that more than 1,300 Iraqis were killed in the violence following the Samarra shrine attack, according to Baghdad's main morgue, far higher than previously reported. Maj. Falah al-Mohammedawi, an official with the Interior Ministry, which collects statistics from police nationwide, put the figure today at 216.
The Defense Ministry said Monday that a curfew in Baghdad and three surrounding provinces curtailed the violence.
The Shiite-Sunni violence threatened U.S. plans of a broad-based government capable of luring Sunni Arabs away from the deadly insurgency so coalition troops can begin heading home.
Adnan al-Dulaimi, whose Iraqi Accordance Front spearheaded the Sunni walkout from the talks, said the Sunnis are "intent on participating" in a new government but are holding out for "some conditions" to be met.
The U.S. State Department praised the Sunni leadership as "looking to get back into the game, full strength" and brushed aside the additional demands.