Calm in Sunni bastion ahead of Bush speech

Streets were quiet in a Baghdad district where United States and Iraqi forces killed 50 people in a major battle as President George Bush prepared on Wednesday to unveil a plan to send more troops to turn the war around.

Iraqi troops sealed off some areas in Haifa Street, a Sunni Arab stronghold, but fighting from a major US and Iraqi operation to rid the area of “terrorist hideouts” had ended, an official at the Iraqi Army media office told Reuters.

The offensive, backed by US fighter jets and helicopters, followed an announcement by Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of a crackdown on militants in the capital.

Unbowed by public doubts, Bush plans to announce that he will send about 20 000 more US troops to Iraq as part of a long-delayed shift in strategy in the unpopular war.

Bush’s plan may represent his last best chance to salvage the US mission in Iraq, where more than 3 000 US troops have died and tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed since the 2003 invasion.

Administration officials said Bush will announce plans to deploy about 20 000 more US troops to join 127 000 already in Iraq—most to Baghdad and 4 000 to volatile Anbar province.

They said Bush will call for turning over security of all Iraqi provinces by November, but they cautioned that this did not represent a timetable for a US pull-out. Iraqis currently control only six of 18 provinces.

A US defence official said Bush will announce an increase in the training of Iraqi security forces through a programme in which US trainers live and work within an Iraqi unit.

Democrats in control of the U.S. Congress vowed ahead of the 9pm (2am GMT on Thursday) address in the White House that they would fight what they called an escalation of the war.

Aides said Bush will couple his troop announcement with a new call for Iraq’s government to meet political milestones aimed at ending sectarian violence.

But he was not expected to give the Iraqis a timetable.
Aides said action on many milestones is already under way, such as an oil-revenue sharing plan, constitutional reform and allowing former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party to return to public life.

Bush’s troops plan follows personal commitments from Maliki to provide more Iraqi troops in Baghdad, seen as key to stabilising the country, and a promise not to shield radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Maliki’s government has said it welcomes the new strategy.

His Democratic opponents have voiced scepticism about Maliki’s will to target his fellow Shi’ite militias as well as minority Sunni militants to stave off all-out civil war.

Echoing long-standing complaints from the once-dominant Sunni community that they are being persecuted by the Shi’ite majority, Sunni Vice-President Tareq al-Hashemi said Maliki had to tackle militias to help end violence.

The Pentagon has identified Mehdi Army militias loyal to Sadr, a Maliki ally, as the greatest threat in Iraq.

“We need a greater focus on the militias, which kill innocent civilians and defy the government with impunity,” Hashemi wrote in an opinion piece in the Washington Post.

“A comprehensive plan is needed to save Iraq from disaster. I hope that the administration has considered these critical issues and that the new strategy effectively addresses them.”

In a sign of bubbling sectarian tension, residents in battle-scarred Haifa Street said the push was simply a front for Shi’ites pushing Sunnis out of the capital.

“Is this Maliki’s plan to secure Iraq? The government is handing us over to the Mehdi Army,” a woman said.

“They were all innocent civilians,” a man said pointing at bodies that had been brought to a local mosque in Haifa Street.

“They are the martyrs of Haifa Street.” - Reuters

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