President George Bush on Thursday announced a suspension of United States troop withdrawals from Iraq this summer to allow the military to reassess the security situation.
The announcement came amid a spike in violence in Iraq in recent weeks. Iraqi police said on Thursday that US air strikes killed 10 people in the eastern Baghdad militia stronghold of Sadr City, where street fighting had eased after four days of clashes that have killed close to 90 people.
Bush endorsed a recommendation by his commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, to complete a limited withdrawal of combat troops by July but then impose a 45-day freeze of the total at about 140 000 troops before considering more possible cuts.
”I’ve told him he’ll have all the time he needs,” Bush said in Washington.
The Sadr City slum has since Sunday been the focal point of battles between black-masked Mehdi Army militiamen loyal to Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and security forces.
An extension of clashes that erupted in late March when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki cracked down on the militia in the southern city of Basra, the violence has coloured a US election-year debate over troop cuts by highlighting the fragility of recent security gains.
Iraqi police said two separate US air strikes on Thursday morning had killed six people and wounded 10 in Sadr City. Lieutenant Colonel Steven Stover, a US military spokesperson, confirmed two strikes on a suspected rocket site from a drone plane, but said he was unaware of any deaths.
Late on Wednesday, a US helicopter fired two missiles at gunmen in the slum who attacked a joint US-Iraqi security station, killing four, Stover said. Iraqi police and hospital officials said two of the four dead were young boys.
A roadside bomb also killed a US soldier in central Baghdad overnight, raising the US military death toll in Iraq to 20 for April, putting this month on track to be the deadliest for American soldiers since September.
Still, police, the US military and residents said the streets of Sadr City, where most of the fighting this week has taken place, were calmer than in the past four days, when al-Sadr’s militia battled the US and Iraqi military.
”The situation is quieter. We are hearing sporadic gunfire and US combat planes have been flying overhead, but the Iraqi military is not in the streets like past days,” said Raad al-Humairi, a Sadr City resident. ”Some shops have opened. People buy what they need and then the shops close again.”
Under Bush’s plan, the military will complete a withdrawal in July of about 20 000 extra combat troops deployed in the last year but then pause before deciding whether more can be pulled out.
Bush also said he was reducing the military combat tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan to one year from 15 months.
Despite a one-day Baghdad-wide car ban imposed on Wednesday, the fifth anniversary of the capital’s fall to US troops, more than 20 people were killed in Sadr City clashes and the US military announced the deaths of five more of its soldiers.
US military deaths have averaged roughly one a day over the past six months, but that number has doubled in April. — Reuters