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TIKRIT, Iraq (AP) -- U.S. forces on Friday captured six people "closely tied" to Saddam Hussein and his regime for suspected anti-coalition activities including attacks on helicopters, a U.S. commander said.
In Fallujah, meanwhile, residents said Friday that two men suspected of having been informants for the Americans were slain by insurgents. The killings, which occurred late Thursday and early Friday, followed warnings in pamphlets circulated in the area west of Baghdad warning Iraqis against cooperating with the occupation force.
Separately, scores of well-wishers gathered Friday near the house of Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, in the holy city of Najaf to check reports of an attempt on his life. They were assured that their spiritual leader is safe and accounts of a failed assassination were a lie.
The raids around Saddam's hometown of Tikrit were targeting Iraqis suspected of involvement in attacks on U.S. troops and helicopters, said Lt. Col. Steve Russell, a battalion commander in the 4th Infantry Division.
"The individuals are closely tied to the Saddam family and the former regime. They represent some of the last of the main network that we have been targeting for many months," Russell said without providing details.
Also Friday, about 800 Iraqis demonstrated in Khaldiyah, west of Baghdad in the Sunni Triangle, to demand that a dusk-to-dawn curfew be lifted and Iraqis detained by U.S. forces be released. The curfew was imposed late last month after a roadside bomb killed three American soldiers.
American forces are tracking a shadowy militant group that claimed responsibility for Sunday's back-to-back suicide bombings at Kurdish political offices in the northern city of Irbil. The attacks killed at least 109 people, including senior Kurdish politicians who were strong U.S. allies.
A statement from a group calling itself the Ansar al-Sunna Army said it targeted the "dens of the devils" because of the Kurds' ties to the United States.
Kimmitt said the U.S. military believes Ansar al-Sunna is a splinter group of Ansar al-Islam, allegedly linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network.The claim could not be confirmed.
"We are certainly going to follow up on the claims," said Kimmitt. "That's the only claim we have right now. We aren't closer than we were 24 hours ago or 48 hours before ... either on the group responsible or on its motivation."
In Irbil, Muslims clerics used their Friday sermons to denounce the attacks against the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
"Islam doesn't call for killing those who are unarmed...Those who committed these two crimes do not belong to Islam regardless of whatever names they call themselves," imam Suleiman Abdullah told hundreds of worshippers in the Mustafa Naqshabandy mosque.
A U.S. official in Washington who spoke on condition of anonymity said Ansar al-Sunna is an umbrella organization for anti-U.S. extremists founded last September with Ansar al-Islam at its core.
The group has claimed responsibility for several attacks in Iraq, many of which cannot be verified.
Al-Sistani is not known to have left his modest house, in the center of the holy Shiite city of Najaf, at least since last April, and receives very few visitors except other clerics and students. "I was on du ty all day yesterday and we received no reports of anything unusual. The whole thing is a lie," said police Capt. Abdul Haji al-Kazim, a member of a security force set up last year to protect Najaf's clerics following the assassination of an important Shiite clergyman.
A U.N. election expert, Carina Perelli, was in Amman, Jordan on Friday. U.N. officials refused to confirm her presence or say why she was there. However, it appeared she was en route to Baghdad to head a mission to determine if Iraq can hold early elections, which are being demanded by the majority Shiites.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)