Al-Qaida video promotes killings

Al-Maliki takes control of small part of Iraqi forces

September 08, 2006|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A man purporting to be al-Qaida's new leader in Iraq made his first appearance on the Internet yesterday with an audiotape in which he called on Iraq's Sunnis to unite and to each kill an American within the next 15 days.

The tape was posted as Iraq's prime minister assumed command and control of a fraction of the Iraqi armed forces at a ceremony of largely symbolic importance for the country's efforts to gain independence from foreign forces and for U.S. hopes eventually to bring American troops home.

Yet a day touted as one of "gigantic" significance by the U.S. military was marred by a rash of bombings across Baghdad that left 17 people dead as police said they had found 34 handcuffed and tortured bodies dumped in the neighborhood of Dora. Three U.S. troops also were reported killed, two of them in Anbar province and one in the northern Iraq town of Hawija.

That a new security effort in Baghdad has not yet had a discernible impact on the level of violence was illustrated by a revised death toll for August, issued by Iraq's Health Ministry. The new figure puts the August toll in Baghdad at 1,536, only slightly below the record of around 1,800 recorded in July.

The U.S. military had said the number of killings dropped sharply in August after the deployment of additional U.S. forces in Baghdad to support a new operation to secure the city. But the revised figure apparently reflects a surge in violence in the last days of the month.

In the worst of yesterday's attacks, a suicide bomber rammed his car into a checkpoint outside the offices of an Interior Ministry building, killing 10 people. Six other bombings around the capital killed seven others.

Suicide bombings have become rare since the killing of al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June appeared to weaken the organization. The purported new al-Qaida leader, identifying himself as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, vowed that attacks will increase against U.S. forces and the country's Shiite majority in the weeks ahead.

"I urge you not to throw down your weapon or give yourself or your enemy a rest until each one of you kills at least one American in a period not exceeding 15 days," he said, speaking in Egyptian-accented Arabic.

The U.S. military had named the new leader of al-Qaida as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, a nom-de-guerre identifying the man only as an Egyptian. But it was impossible to tell whether this was the same man. Because no one has previously spoken as al-Qaida's new leader, it was also impossible to verify the man's claim, but the Web site was routinely used by al-Zarqawi to post audio and video messages to his followers.

The day's violence and threats overshadowed the handover ceremony in a stuffy hall inside Iraq's Defense Ministry, at which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Gen. George Casey, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, put their signatures on an agreement creating a new Iraqi-led command structure for the country's armed forces and providing for the eventual transfer of the entire Iraqi army to Iraqi control.

As a first step, al-Maliki also took control of the Iraqi army's 8th Division, which is based in southern Diwaniyah province, the country's tiny air force and its 500-man navy, marking the first time the Iraqi government has directly commanded troops since the collapse of Saddam Hussein.

"This day will go down as a great day alongside the other great days achieved by the Iraqi people," al-Maliki told reporters, speaking for the first time as commander in chief of some armed forces.

With nine more army divisions and around 105,000 soldiers still under overall U.S. command, however, the accord is unlikely to have much immediate effect on the day-to-day effort led by U.S. forces to quell the violence.

The handover agreement contained no timetable for the transfer of the remaining divisions to Iraqi command, and it is not clear when they will be ready to stand on their own.

"Today is an important milestone, but we still have a way to go," said Casey, addressing the dignitaries gathered at the ceremony.

Iraqi army chief of staff Gen. Babak Zebari said he envisioned all nine divisions falling under Iraqi command and control by the end of 2007, a date roughly in line with recent predictions by Casey that U.S. forces will be able to take a backseat to the Iraqi army within 12 to 18 months.

"By the end of 2007, I have a big hope the Americans will keep just a few bases outside the cities to support the Iraqi army," he said.

Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the multinational force's corps commander in Iraq, called the timeline "totally within the realm of possibility" and said he had full confidence in the fighting abilities of Iraqi forces. But Iraqi forces will continue to rely on U.S. forces for logistical support and advanced weaponry for the foreseeable future, he said.

The Iraqi air force comprises four helicopters, three Hercules cargo planes and six small reconnaissance aircraft, meaning Iraq will have to call on the U.S. for air support for a long time to come. None of the Iraqi or American military officials at the ceremony knew the number of vessels in the 500-man navy.

The challenges confronting the Iraqi army were illustrated last month when the 8th Division, the one transferred to Iraqi command, confronted a mini-rebellion by militia forces loyal to the firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. At least 20 soldiers were reported to have been publicly executed in a city square, and U.S. air support was called in before order was restored.

Liz Sly writes for the Chicago Tribune. Wire services contributed to this article.

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