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Iraq Transition

Iraqis launch Mahmoudiya killings probe

U.S. general praises improvement in Iraqi security forces

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Iraqi investigators plan to examine the house where two girls and their parents reportedly were killed.

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Iraqi authorities have begun an independent investigation into allegations that U.S. soldiers raped and killed a 14-year-old girl, and killed her sister and parents, near Mahmoudiya in March, the city's mayor said.

The announcement comes as Iraqis are demanding that the soldiers -- already facing military and civilian proceedings -- be tried in Iraqi courts, a tricky demand considering the U.S. and Iraq have an agreement under which U.S. soldiers are exempt from Iraqi courts.

"We have a status forces agreement with the government of Iraq. We have a judicial system in place for our military personnel," said a member of the Coalition Press Information Center.

Mahmoudiya Mayor Moayad Fadhel Saif said a seven-member committee of local officials began its inquiry Thursday, and it should be complete by the end of this week.

The mayor is a member of the committee. Other members include a hospital official, a prosecutor and members of the security forces, Saif said.

The committee's findings will be sent to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has promised an independent Iraqi investigation and has said the immunity granted to coalition troops needs to be reviewed.

Spc. James Barker, 23, Sgt. Paul Cortez, 23, Pfc. Jesse V. Spielman, 21, and Pfc. Bryan L. Howard, 19, face charges in military court in connection with the March 12 killings south of Baghdad.

Former Pfc. Steven Green, who was discharged from the Army in May because of an "anti-social personality disorder" and returned to the United States, is facing rape and murder charges in a civilian federal court. He is being held in a Kentucky jail.

A sixth soldier, Sgt. Anthony W. Yribe, has been charged with failing to report the alleged rape and killings but is not alleged to have been a participant.

The Iraqi investigative committee will interview witnesses and examine the house where the victims lived. The victims are Abeer Qassim al-Janabi, 14, her sister, Hadil Qassim al-Janabi, 5, and their parents.

General praises Iraqi security

Iraqi security forces are improving as evidenced by the "robust" security plan implemented for a recent Shiite pilgrimage and the arrests of several al Qaeda insurgents and death squad members, said Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, spokesman of the Multinational Force-Iraq.

Despite deadly sniper attacks during Saturday's pilgrimage, Caldwell said the Iraqi security network has become more sophisticated since last year when 1,000 pilgrims were killed after rumors of suicide bombers sparked a stampede across a Tigris River bridge.

A heavy presence in the streets and a vehicle ban over the weekend, designed to avoid last year's tragedy, did not stop gunmen throughout the city from targeting pilgrims with "silent sniper rifles and other weapons," according to the Iraqi Defense Ministry.

At least 20 people were killed and 300 others wounded in the attacks on Shiites in six Baghdad neighborhoods, Baghdad police and Health Ministry officials said. Six snipers were killed and 19 more arrested.

"The success of the security forces in preventing terrorists from conducting their criminal plans, in spite of the deaths of some martyrs, reflects the increasing capabilities of Iraqi armed forces in facing terrorism and spreading control through security operations and imposing the rule of law," the Defense Ministry said.

Caldwell echoed those remarks.

"They developed, coordinated and executed a robust security strategy in order to provide a safe guided passage for the pilgrims while providing resources aimed at preventing potential terrorist or criminal activities during this ceremony," Caldwell said, calling their efforts this year an "incredible leap forward" from 2005.

An Iraqi Health Ministry official said July was the deadliest month for civilians since the war began in March 2003. The 3,438 Iraqis killed in July followed almost 6,000 collective deaths in May and June, according to the United Nations.

Caldwell, however, said attacks in several Baghdad neighborhoods have dropped in the last few weeks, as U.S. and Iraqi forces carried out operations in the capital.

"This is a long-term project. This is months in the making," Caldwell said. "But all the signs are very positive at this point."

Meanwhile, more than 100 "known and suspected al Qaeda terrorists and terrorist associates" have been arrested in operations across Iraq over the last week, he said. Also, six death squad cell leaders and 31 cell members were arrested.

Iran accused of prodding violence

A British commander in Iraq said Tuesday that "we can see a very clear Iranian role in stoking up violence inside Iraq" -- which has been in the throes of persistent Shiite-Sunni violence for a half-year.

British Royal Marine Lt. Gen. Sir Robert Fry, deputy commander of the Multinational Force-Iraq, made the remark after he was asked about Iran's role in Iraq's sectarian violence. He spoke to Pentagon reporters in a teleconference from Iraq.

Sectarian violence increased after the Askariya Mosque, a Shiite shrine, was bombed in Samarra on February 22. The attack, believed to have been carried out by Sunni insurgents, was followed by almost daily Sunni-Shiite reprisal killings, especially in Baghdad.

Iran is the world's largest Shiite nation, and many Shiites now in power took refuge in or were backed by Iran when they were political dissidents during the reign of Saddam Hussein.

There is "some pretty clear evidence" of Iran's involvement in sectarian fighting, Fry said.

"We know that some of the arms coming into this country and being used in attacks against the security forces are provided by Iran," he said. "Certainly we believe that there is money and maybe even some training being involved for those involved in the use of violence inside Iraq."

Fry said efforts are being made to react to Iranian influence.

"We conduct military operations to try and make sure that the flow of weapons, the flow of techniques and the flow of trained individuals across the border is prevented as far as we possibly can," he said.

CNN's Mohammed Tawfeeq and Nicky Robertson contributed to this report.

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