Mixed messages on Iraq

Local officials see drop in Baghdad violence

U.S. wary of new attacks

March 15, 2007|By Alexandra Zavis | Alexandra Zavis,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi officials promoted yesterday the successes of the Baghdad crackdown, seen as a last-ditch attempt to quell the violence, by noting that civilian casualties had dropped sharply in the first month of the plan.

Their U.S. counterparts, however, offered a more cautious assessment.

Execution-style killings, the hallmark of sectarian death squads, were down by more than 50 percent, said Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq. But he said "high-profile" car bombings had reached an all-time high in February and had the potential "to start that whole cycle of violence again."

U.S.-led forces have focused their efforts in recent days on locating and destroying the facilities that produce car bombs; many of those facilities are believed to be on Baghdad's fringes, Caldwell told reporters at a briefing.

But he appealed for patience, saying it would be months before the United States has all its forces in place and that there might not be a discernible difference in Iraq until "the fall time frame."

Lt. Gen. Abboud Qanbar, the Iraqi commander of the Baghdad security plan, said 265 civilians were killed and 781 injured since the crackdown began Feb. 13, compared with 1,440 killed and 3,192 injured the previous month. Sectarian displacement was also decreasing, and about 2,000 families had returned to their homes, he said.

"The achievements of the last 30 days cannot only be evaluated by numbers and statistics but must also take into account the confidence of ordinary Iraqis that a positive change is taking place regarding security and being felt by people," he told reporters at a briefing inside the heavily fortified Green Zone.

Many Sunni Arab and Shiite militants are believed to have fled Baghdad, contributing to the apparent decline in sectarian killing in the capital and a spike in attacks in parts of Diyala, Babil and other outlying provinces.

Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose powerful Mahdi militia waged two major uprisings against U.S.-led forces in 2004, remained outside the country "as of 24 hours ago" and was believed to be in Iran, Caldwell said. His followers insist the cleric remains in the country.

Under pressure from Iraq's Shiite-led government, al-Sadr ordered his followers off the streets to avoid another showdown with U.S. forces. But persistent attacks against Shiite Muslims, including a series of major bombings targeting the millions of pilgrims who converged on the holy city of Karbala last weekend, have caused mounting frustration.

Caldwell expressed concern that the number of bullet-riddled bodies recovered in the capital over the past week had started to inch back up. At least two Sunni mosques have also been attacked in recent days, one in Baghdad and one in Iskandariya, south of the capital, police said.

Violence continued yesterday, with at least eight Iraqis killed in a bomb blast, gunfire and other attacks.

A suicide car bomber exploded his vehicle at a military checkpoint in the Sunni-dominated west Baghdad neighborhood of Yarmouk, killing at least one person and injuring four others, police said.

A local council official was killed in a drive-by shooting in Adhamiya, a Sunni enclave in Shiite-dominated east Baghdad, police said.

Iraqi police and soldiers traded fire with gunmen holed up in an apartment building inhabited by Palestinian refugees in east Baghdad. At least two people were killed and three injured inside the building, police said at the scene. U.S. and Iraqi security forces surrounded the building and apprehended up to 70 suspects, they said.

North of the capital, a bomb exploded in a market in Tuz Khormatu, killing two people and injuring 12, police said.

Gunmen burst into a shop on the outskirts of Kirkuk and killed two employees, police said. Two others were injured in the attack.

A bomb exploded on a road southwest of the city, killing a civilian driver, police said.

Alexandra Zavis writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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