Wave of violence claims at least 50 across Iraq

Bush abandons use of `stay the course'

October 24, 2006|By Borzou Daragahi | Borzou Daragahi,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A militia chief's brother, kidnapped last week in an act of vengeance that sparked a two-day battle over control of a southern Iraq city, was found dead yesterday amid signs of simmering unrest between rival Shiite Muslim groups that is undermining security in the relatively stable south.

At least 50 other Iraqis were killed or found dead around the country yesterday as part of a relentless wave of political violence that has marked the just-ending Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Mounting U.S. and Iraqi casualties have spurred calls for changes to America's political and military policy in Iraq. In Washington, the White House yesterday sought to play down suggestions that the U.S. was pressuring the Iraqi government to set specific benchmarks and deadlines for gaining political and military control.

At the same time, officials said the administration is flexible and is seeking to adjust course as needed. There were "practical conversations going on" with Iraqi leaders, said White House press secretary Tony Snow. "But is the United States saying, `Here's your drop-dead date?' Of course not."

Snow added that President Bush was no longer using the phrase "stay the course" when speaking about the Iraq war, in a new effort to emphasize flexibility in the face of some of the bloodiest violence there since the 2003 invasion.

"He's stopped using it," Snow said. "It left the wrong impression about what was going on and it allowed critics to say, `Well, here's an administration that's just embarked upon a policy and not looking at what the situation is,' when, in fact, it is the opposite."

Bush used the slogan in a stump speech on Aug. 31, but has not repeated it for some time. Still, Snow's pronouncement was a stark example of the complicated line the White House is walking this election year in trying to tag Democrats as wanting to "cut and run" from Iraq, without itself appearing wedded to unsuccessful tactics there.

Meanwhile, U.S. and Iraqi forces scoured the capital last night for an American soldier they believe might have been kidnapped, the U.S. military said.

The possible kidnapping came amid a spate of daring insurgent attacks on American forces in Baghdad. Officials yesterday raised to at least seven the number of American soldiers killed in the Iraqi capital in the closing hours of Ramadan.

At least 12 American troops died in Iraq over the weekend and 87 have been killed so far this month. Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Baghdad, said an Iraqi intelligence tip led them to believe the soldier might have been kidnapped from a point "off a U.S. base," he said.

In London, Iraq's deputy prime minister predicted in a BBC interview that "seven or eight" of the country's 18 provinces would be under Iraqi control by the end of the year.

"There is too much of a pessimistic tone to this debate, even I would say in certain circles a defeatist tone," said Barham Salih.

Amarah, the southern city afflicted by weekend fighting, is among the areas all but handed over to Iraqi forces. Authorities braced for more violence with the discovery of Hussein Bahadeli's bullet-riddled body, which bore signs of torture and was found in a rural field near the city, said an official at the forensics department of Amarah's main hospital.

Bahadeli was kidnapped Thursday to avenge the slaying of the provincial director of intelligence a day earlier. Hundreds of heavily armed black-clad militiamen loyal to his brother, Mahdi militia leader Sheik Fadhel Bahadeli, swarmed the city, attacking police stations and fighting gunbattles that left as many as 25 dead on Thursday and Friday.

In possible retaliation, unidentified gunmen early Friday morning shot and killed a police officer as he left his home in downtown Amarah and abducted another, whose body was later found with several gunshot wounds to the head and torso.

Witnesses described the atmosphere in the city as tense, but Lt. Col. Sharhan Hassan, spokesman for Iraqi forces there, denied reports that a curfew had been imposed or that fighting continued yesterday.

Mahdi Army militiamen, loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, are fighting for control of southern Iraq with militiamen loyal to other Shiite clerics and factions. Though an al-Sadr loyalist occupies the governor's seat in Maysan province, loyalists to cleric Abdelaziz Hakim dominate the security forces, including the Ministry of Interior and police. Hakim leads the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite Muslim rival to al-Sadr's organization.

British forces vacated Amarah this summer, handing de facto control of the province over to Iraqi forces. Decades-old tensions between followers of the Hakim and al-Sadr clerical families have at times turned bloody, introducing another volatile dynamic in a country already reeling from sectarian and insurgent violence.

Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times contributed to this article.

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