In Baghdad, U.S. stepping up drive against `death squads'

Raids in capital target rising sectarian violence

in Anbar, two U.S. soldiers are killed


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- U.S. military officials announced yesterday that they had stepped up a campaign against "death squads" operating in the capital, launching 19 raids as sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites left dozens dead and wounded throughout Iraq.

In the western Iraqi province of Anbar, two U.S. soldiers died in combat and the mayor of the provincial capital was assassinated.

Inside the heavily protected Green Zone, Saddam Hussein's half-brother presented his final defense in a trial over the fate of nearly 150 Shiite villagers who were killed by the former regime.

Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the top military spokesman in Baghdad, said yesterday that the 19 raids were part of an effort to control the violence that has engulfed Baghdad in recent weeks. "Over the last week, we have intensified ... our efforts against death squads," he said.

The military said they captured eight cell leaders and 37 members.

Meanwhile, Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, a former Shiite activist, made his first official visit to Britain since his government was formed in May.

In London, he acknowledged the violence between Shiite militiamen and Sunni insurgents but insisted his government is still able to control the situation.

"There is a sectarian issue, but the political leaders have succeeded, and they are working on putting an end to the sectarian issue," he told the British Broadcasting Corp., before meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "There are continuing efforts in that direction; civil war will not happen in Iraq."

Al-Maliki was scheduled to travel to Washington today, amid talks of committing additional U.S. troops to Iraq.

Of how long a foreign military presence might be needed in Iraq, he said "definitely not decades, not even years."

"I think, in this visit, we will discuss issues that will enable foreign troops to leave," he told the BBC. "There are certain aspects in our local forces that need development. When that happens, foreign troops can start leaving."

Iraq's sectarian violence has prevented a serious troop drawdown, and American soldiers continue to die in the fighting.

The U.S. military announced yesterday that two soldiers assigned to the 1st Brigade of the 1st Armored Division, based in Ramadi, had been killed.

Although the military released no more details, a witness reported that a roadside bomb had exploded near a Humvee about 5 p.m. yesterday, apparently killing the U.S. troops.

Four civilians were also killed during a clash between a U.S. military patrol and gunmen yesterday afternoon, Ramadi Police Lt. Muhammed Shibeeb said. Violence has intensified in Ramadi in the past two days, killing five policemen and the mayor, he said.

Sunday night, the mayor of Ramadi, Muhamed Ahmed Al-Dulami, was killed about 9 p.m. by a group of gunmen, according to a witness. Three policemen were also killed in the attack.

In two separate incidents in Baghdad's Dora neighborhood yesterday afternoon, gunmen killed an official in the Ministry of Electricity and shot a civilian. In north Baghdad, four bodies were found, all killed execution-style. Three other bodies of Sunnis shot in the head were found behind a factory in Taji, north of Baghdad.

In addition, three civilians were killed and 20 were injured in mortar attacks in south and west Baghdad. And a clash between police and gunmen killed one police officer and injured six Iraqis in downtown Baghdad.

Iraqi security forces were also targeted in two separate roadside bombings that left one civilian dead and injured two Iraqi soldiers and two police officers.

Caldwell, the U.S. military spokesman, insisted, despite the spike in violence in Baghdad, that most of Iraq remained relatively stable and peaceful.

But other major cities were not quiet yesterday.

A suicide car bomb exploded in eastern Mosul, killing five Iraqis and injuring four. Two people were found dead of gunshot wounds in western Mosul and a member of the Iraqi Turkomen Front, a political party representing the Turkomen minority, was assassinated along with three of his bodyguards.

A car bomb also exploded in Samarra, killing two people and injuring 11.

In Basra, British forces moving against members of the Mahdi Army militia detained nine men, angering residents loyal to the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, an official from al-Sadr's Basra office said.

Final defense arguments resumed yesterday in the trial of Hussein and seven co-defendants on human rights charges stemming from reprisals against Shiite villagers in the town of Dujayl, even with the former president in the hospital and defense lawyers boycotting court sessions.

Hussein, on a weeks-long hunger strike to protest conditions for the defense, was hospitalized and voluntarily receiving sustenance from a feeding tube Sunday, a U.S. military official said.

Borzou Daragahi and Julian E. Barnes write for the Los Angeles Times.

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