Iraq War Violence Erupts After Calm

Although Baghdad was breathing a welcome sigh of relief on Saturday, with 110,000 US and Iraqi forces advancing their much-anticipated crackdown in the capital, the violence in Iraq contined to escalate.

Insurgents hit a coalition outpost north of the Iraqi capital Monday, killing two American soldiers and wounding 17 others, the US military announced. Insurgents “initiated the coordinated attack” on the outpost with a car bomb, according to a brief military statement.

Attacks have also resumed in the Baghdad area as the calm seems to have broken.

Over the weekend, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice touched down in Iraq on an unannounced visit to praise the troops’ progress and warn that the Iraqi government needs to use the ‘breathing space’ to push through political reforms that hold the key to ending the sectarian bloodshed.

“They are off to a good start,” said Dr Rice, referring to the joint US-Iraqi Operation Imposing Law. “How the Iraqis use the breathing space that might provide is what is really important.”

Dr Rice planned to meet with (Shiite) Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, (Kurdish) President Jalal Talabani and (Sunni) Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi during her visit. She said she intended to make clear the urgency of political reconciliation to unite warring groups, legislation to share oil revenue between regions and provincial elections to extend the democratic process to the local level.

On Friday, Mr al-Maliki told President Bush in a video conference that the crackdown had been “a brilliant success” thus far, and reassured Mr Bush that Iraqi troops would pursue militants regardless of their sect.

It is hoped that the current crackdown will restore a level of security that will enable the al-Maliki government to introduce historic political reforms. Operation Imposing Order, seen as a last-ditch attempt to impose order in Iraq, has so far included:

  • temporarily closing Iraq’s borders with Iran and Syria, to stop the flow of militants and weapons, and to redesign border crossings to curb future weapons smuggling;
  • restricting the movement of vehicles and individuals into and within Baghdad and Basra;
  • setting up checkpoints throughout these cities;
  • stopping and searching vehicles, including official convoys;
  • confiscating explosives and weapons, even from civilians who have gun permits; and
  • ordering squatters out of homes in neighborhoods that have been ethnically cleansed.

Until Sunday, the US troops and Iraqi security forces fanning out across Baghdad had encountered little resistance. As expected, there had been a marked decline in bombings and death squad killings since the troops stepped up their presence.

“Violence and the number of bodies (dumped) has decreased dramatically since the plan was implemented,” said Brigadier Qassim Moussawi, a spokesman for the general commanding Iraqi security forces in Baghdad. “This is a positive sign.”

The US military blames the Mehdi Army, a militia loyal to local Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and based in the sprawling slum of Sadr City in northeastern Baghdad, for most of the death squad killings in the capital. Hundreds of their members have been arrested over the past few weeks, including Mr al-Sadr’s second in command. The Mehdi Army’s leadership, including Mr al-Sadr, is said to have fled Baghdad to Iran earlier this week.

Other insurgents have simply moved their activities outside the major cities to avoid detection and arrest. On Saturday, a double car bomb exploded in a crowded market in the predominantly Kurdish Rahim Awa district in the northern city of Kirkuk, killing 10 people and wounding 60.

During the early stages of previous joint US-Iraqi crackdowns, violence also dropped off dramatically before spiking with a vengeance. US military officials have warned that insurgents may have gone into hiding temporarily in order to assess the situation for weaknesses that might be exploited.

Dr Rice arrived in Baghdad the day after the US House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution by a vote of 246 to 182 to “disapprove” of President Bush’s plan to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq to help quell the sectarian violence.

On Saturday, a second attempt to debate the Iraq war failed in the Senate, which voted 56-34 against debating the merits of the same non-binding resolution to reject the troop surge.

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