Last-chance Iraq security operation appears ready

Violence raked Baghdad on Monday as an Iraqi general took charge of the security operation in the capital and Iraqi police and soldiers manned new roadblocks—initial steps indicating the start of the long-anticipated joint operation with American forces to curb sectarian bloodshed.

But bombers, gunmen and mortar teams appeared undaunted by the push that—eventually and on paper—will be able to call on as many as 90 000 American and Iraqi troops and police in a third bid to calm the capital in nine months.

At least 29 people died in bomb and mortar attacks across the city on Monday, 15 of them as they waited to refill propane cooking tanks when two car bombs blew up in quick succession in south Baghdad.

Two past security operations in the capital over the past nine months—operations Together Forward I and II—have failed, and the United States has blamed Iraqi authorities for failing to produce the number of troops promised.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said last week that Iraqi troops to augment the newly assembled Baghdad force, while arriving on time, were only at about half the number promised.

Too long

A spokesperson for the Sadr Movement, an important Shi’ite bloc in Parliament, complained that the security crackdown had been too long in coming, especially given the series of bombings that have devastated mainly Shi’ite marketplaces over the past weeks.

At least 132 people died in a truck bombing on Saturday in the Sadriyah market, the deadliest single bomb attack since the war began.

Falah Hassan, the Sadr bloc lawmaker and spokesperson, said the delay “has negative consequences for the lives of the Iraqis”.

“The government told us that they need some extra time to complete the requirements of a successful plan and they are about to finish them ... We demand that the plan be executed as soon as possible because the terrorists are going too far in their vicious attacks,” Hassan said on behalf of the lawmakers loyal to renegade anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

The security sweep will be led by Lieutenant General Abboud Gambar, who was named to the top position under pressure from the US military after it rejected Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s first choice—Lieutenant General Mohan al-Freiji.

Gambar will have two Iraqi deputies, one on each side of the Tigris River that splits Baghdad north to south. The city is to be divided into nine districts, and there are to be as many as 600 US forces in each district to back up Iraqi troops who will take the lead in the security drive.

Last chance

The security drive, for which US President George Bush has dispatched 21 500 additional American forces, is seen by many as a last-chance effort to quell the sectarian violence ravaging the capital and surrounding regions.

As the operation slowly began, suspected Shi’ite militiamen burned down three houses in the largely Sunni al-Amil district in south-west Baghdad.
Casualties were not known because police had blockaded the area.

The US military reported the deaths of two American soldiers, both killed on Sunday.

Outside Baghdad, two key members of radical anti-American Shi’ite cleric al-Sadr’s political and military organisation were killed as the top ranks of the organisation continue to come under attack from both Sunni insurgents and US and Iraqi forces.

Ali Khazim, who ran al-Sadr’s political organisation in volatile Diyala province north-east of Baghdad, was killed on Sunday by US forces at his home in Howaider village, 20km east of Baqouba, Saleh al-Ageili, a spokesperson for the Sadr Movement’s parliamentary bloc, said on Monday.

Provincial police confirmed al-Ageili’s account. A spokesperson said Khazim was stabbed with a bayonet.

“What has happened to Khazim is part of the series of provocative acts by the occupation forces against the Sadr movement. The occupation forces know well who are the terrorists and their whereabouts, yet they are targeting our people,” al-Ageili said.

Leader killed

The US military said in a statement that Iraqi troops backed by Americans had shot and killed the leader of a rogue Mehdi Army group in Howaider. It did not name Khazim as the victim.

“The suspect is believed to have facilitated and directed numerous kidnappings, assassinations and other violence targeting Iraqi civilians and Iraqi police. He is reportedly responsible for several attacks against coalition and Iraqi forces in the area,” the military said.

The second Sadr organisation official, Khalil al-Maliki, a key figure in the Mehdi Army militia in Basra, was killed by three gunmen in a drive-by shooting on Sunday. He survived an assassination attempt in the city last year.

As many as seven important members of the Sadr organisation have been killed or captured in the past two months, at least three of them by US forces, after al-Maliki, also a Shi’ite, dropped his protection for the organisation—a crucial backer in his rise to power.

On Sunday, an Interior Ministry official said about 1 000 Iraqis—including civilians, security forces and gunmen—had been killed in the previous week alone. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to release the figures.

Figures tallied by The Associated Press from police and government statements put the death toll from January 28 until Saturday at 911. That included the 137 people killed in Saturday’s truck bombing.—Sapa-AP

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