Baghdad: Al Qaida fighters kidnapped 15 Iraqi women and children after rival Sunni Arab militants repelled their attack on two villages in a fierce battle on Thursday in which 32 people were killed, police said.
The fighting, rare on such a large scale, underscored the growing split between Sunni Arab militant groups and Al Qaida that US forces have sought to exploit as they try to quell sectarian violence that has killed tens of thousands.
About 200 Al Qaida fighters raided the villages of Sheikh Tamim and Ibrahim Yehia in restive Diyala province, north of Baghdad, in the early hours of Thursday after launching a mortar attack on the area, police said.
The attack came despite a US offensive in Diyala targeting Al Qaida. US troops launched an operation in June to oust fighters who had taken over large parts of the provincial capital, Baquba. Many escaped to fight on.
Brigadier-General Ali Delayan, the police chief of Baquba, told Reuters that 22 residents had been killed in the fighting along with 10 Al Qaida fighters.
Several wounded residents said villagers were loyal to the Sunni Arab insurgent group, the 1920 Revolution Brigade.
Delayan said the attackers had escaped with eight women and seven children as hostages.
A mosque that served the two villages was destroyed in the fighting and its imam was among those killed, he added.
Delayan said the Al Qaida attackers mortared the villages before storming into them. Rocket-propelled grenades were used in the fighting, in which three houses were destroyed.
He said the gun battle with fighters loyal to the 1920 Revolution Brigade, which has recently distanced itself from Al Qaida, was triggered by the execution of four men, including the mosque imam.
Police said they arrested 22 of the attackers.