US forces were back patrolling the streets of the predominantly Shiite city of Balad after five days of sectarian slaughter killed 95 people, violence that surged out of control despite the efforts of Iraq's best-trained soldiers.
Iraq's 4th Army took command of the region north of Baghdad a month ago, but had been unable to stem recent attacks in Balad, where the slayings of 17 Shiite Muslim workers on Friday set off revenge killings by Shiites.
Minority Sunnis, who absorbed most of the brutality in the city of 80,000 people, have been fleeing across the Tigris River in small boats, Balad police commander Brigadier Nebil al-Beldawi said on Tuesday. On the outskirts of the city, two fuel trucks were attacked and burned.
The police commander said gunmen wearing black uniforms, trademark clothing of Shiite militiamen, had clashed with residents of Duluiyah, a predominantly Sunni city on the east bank of the Tigris, opposite Balad. Al-Beldawi said the militants were keeping food and fuel trucks from entering Duluiyah.
The conflict between Shiites and Sunnis in the Balad area illustrates the threat to the region should Iraq move toward dividing into three federal states controlled by Shiites in the south, Sunnis in the center and Kurds in the north.
Regions such as Baghdad and areas immediately to the north, including Balad, are now home to Shiites and Sunnis. Both groups would be expected to fight hard to maintain control of their territory, especially in the capital.
Last week, over the objection of nearly all Sunnis and some Shiites, the Shiite-dominated parliament voted to allow moves toward establishing federal states after an 18-month waiting period.
Dividing the country would close Sunnis off from oil wealth, which would end up with the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south. Sunni lands are largely desert belts along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
The US military symbolically handed control of parts of Salahuddin province to the 3rd Battalion, 1st Brigade, 4th Iraqi Army Division on April 15. That region included Balad and Duluiyah, as well as surrounding villages. Full control of the province was officially turned over to the 4th Army on Sept. 18.
Under such shifts of control, US forces do not necessarily withdraw, but are deployed to local bases to stand by as backup. Since the latest security crackdown in Baghdad, however, US forces from many regions have shifted to the capital, causing a drawdown of US troop strength in some regions of the country.
As the violence in the Balad region was reaching full pitch on Saturday, the reporters asked the US military in Baghdad if US forces would be redeployed north to quell the killing.
By late Tuesday, the military had not responded to these questions, but local Iraqi police confirmed a US troop buildup.